A thought on LONGEVITY:
A woman walked up to a little old man rocking in a chair on his porch. She said to him, "I couldn't help noticing how happy you look. What's your secret for a long, happy life?"
He answered, "I smoke three packs of cigarettes a day, and I also drink a case of whiskey a week, eat fatty foods, and never ever exercise."
"Wow, That's amazing," the woman said. "How old are you?"
"Twenty-Six," he said.
Each of us is challenged with the task of developing a philosophy of life that gives meaning and purpose to our existence. To be free means to make choices, to make decisions without an infallible view of the future.
St. Augustine, in his Tractatus on the Gospel of John, wrote that : "The beginning of freedom is to be free from crimes ... like murder, adultery, fornication, theft, fraud, sacrilege and so forth. Only when one stops committing these crimes (and no Christian should commit them), one begins to lift up one's head towards freedom. But this is only the beginning of freedom, not perfect freedom."
John Paul II in Evangelium Vitae writes: "The commandment "You shall not kill" thus established the point of departure for the start of true freedom. It leads us to promote life actively, and to develop particular ways of thinking and acting which serve life." (76)
"And now a lawyer stood up and, to tet him, asked, ÔMaster, what must I do to inherit eternal life?'He said to him, ÔWhat is written in the Law? What is your reading of it? He replied, ÔYou must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbour as yourself.' Jesus said to him, ÔYou have answered right, do this and life is yours.'" (Lk.10:25-28)
Notice the compact nature of the response; the order of the commandments; and that the two commandments are connected to one another. I have always been puzzled by those little words - "as yourself." Today I am becoming increasingly aware of just how important they are.
1. Physical Wellness:
Centuries from now, when historians reflect on the significant contributions made in the twentieth century, what has been done to lengthen human life expectancy may well dwarf the other discoveries made in this time. Over 30 years have been added to North American life expectancy in this century alone. This is a greater amount than was added in all the centuries up to the twentieth.
Additionally, not only are we living longer, we are also living younger longer. Perhaps you have had the experience, as I have, of looking back and thinking of your parents, school principal, or possibly a grandparent, and realizing that you are now the same age as they were then. You may think, "Wow! They seemed so old ... I certainly don't feel that old!" Part of this is perspective, but there is also some truth there, they were "older" then than you are today.
Chronological age is rapidly becoming an unreliable measure of whether a person is young, middle-aged, old-aged, or elderly, the same way that mileage has become an unreliable measure of "how long it takes to get there." Some people are young at 50, others old at 40. Because of nutrition, exercise, and more knowledgeable health care, our bodies are not aging as fast as they did even 40 years ago. We are physically young for a longer period of time than our grandparents, parents, or even that school principal.
On the other hand, we are facing health hazards that previous generations did not face. Although we cannot do much (at present) about the most significant factor in our aging process Ð genes Ð there is a great deal we can do, not just to live longer, but to live more healthfully and youthfully. How we are living has a substantial effect on our physical wellness, how rapidly we age, and when and from what we will die.
You may be surprised to learn that the three leading "causes" of death in North America are not heart disease, cancer, and strokes. These are effects that are caused by something else. (A bullet in the brain may cause death, but the real cause of death is the person whose finger pulled the trigger.)
The three leading causes of death in North America are diet, pollution, and stress.
The Centre for Disease Control estimates that 50% of the U.S. mortality rate (and we have no reason to doubt that the same is true for Canada) is due to unhealthy behaviour or lifestyles, and that 20% is due to environmental factors.
What this means is that stress, poor diets, environmental pollutants, alcohol abuse, cigarette smoking, drug misuse, lack of exercise, failure to comply with medical advice, harmful social conditions, and inadequate health delivery systems are far more toxic than viruses and germs.
The message is clear: We must practice Ð and the key word here is practice Ð living in a way that respects our bodies, behaves responsibly towards them, says "no" to those things that can harm them, and "yes" to those things they need, and seeks the help of appropriate others when we are unable to carry through on our efforts. The rewards Ð inner peace, happiness, and a healthier life Ð far outweigh the difficulties we may encounter in practising wellness.
On a basic level, to practice a healthy lifestyle one must stop smoking, be careful of alcohol use, eat sensibly, get adequate sleep, and engage in regular, health-appropriate exercise. (The Center for Disease Control also estimates that 12% of the U.S. mortality rate is directly connected to lack of exercise.) Newspapers, books, videos, magazines, and TV programs are full of advice concerning these issues, to there is no point repeating them here.
We live in an era that is supposedly health conscious, yet too many of us still do not do what needs to be done. What is needed are the will and the effort to practice a more healthy lifestyle. Failures and slips are inevitable, but the more we keep at it, the better we get.
Our commitment to wellness must be total. If we commit to physical wellness, we must also commit to psychological and spiritual wellness. If one of these three elements is missing, we fail.
Think of a three-legged stool. If one of the legs is broken, the stool is useless, no matter how strong the other two legs might be.
2. Psychological Wellness Retaining Our Youthfulness
Our capacity for healthy longevity is also related to our ability to maintain the characteristics of the young. We see this in adults who can still wonder, be excited, spontaneous and enthusiastic, invest themselves in doing or learning something new, and have fun for its own sake. They are living in the now, rather than running into the past or future. Above all, they have not lost Ð or they have re-acquired Ð the capacity to play.
Play, by definition, is purposeless activity; work, its opposite, is always purposeful. Children play naturally. For example, they run with no purpose other than the sheer pleasure of it. Adults run, and measure their pulse to bring it to a certain level, or try to run a predetermined distance in a certain time. Usually we play golf to achieve a certain score, beat a partner, or gamble on the outcome. Some of us even take a vacation only for the purpose of getting back to work with renewed energy. There is nothing wrong with any of this, but it is not really play.
To truly play we should do something just for the doing, like juggling, putting together a jigsaw puzzle, going to an amusement park (take a child along if you need justification), roaming the streets, sledding, skating, walking, running, swimming Ð anything, as long as it has no extrinsic purpose. Above all, do not schedule in play for "X" amount of time each day: Do it spontaneously. Not only does this keep us young, but it may save our lives.
Another important issue in practising physical wellness is the feeling that we are "carrying our weight," doing something that is useful and valued by others, making a contribution. Many of us find this in our work, in what we do to sustain our families or communities, or in donating our time and effort to worthwhile causes or activities. This need to be valued and useful is so critical to our well-being that often our work becomes the way we define ourselves.
Even though our understanding of this may change over time, a person's need to feel herself or himself as one who is valued, useful, and contributing does not change. In our society, this is especially problematic for the aged. We are a culture that overvalues youth and devalues those beyond a certain age, resulting in a perception that people are less valuable or useful as they age. We tend to shelve our elderly, and sentence them to "lives of leisure" with the implicit message that they have nothing more to contribute. It is little wonder that depression and suicide are significant health issues with the elderly.
This issue may become increasingly important during the next century as our technical knowledge explodes exponentially, thereby rendering the training and expertise necessary in many fields today obsolete.
Nevertheless, there is much we can do. Although the earlier we start preparing for old age the better, it is never too late. We can keep active, enriching our lives with what we find fulfilling. We can keep learning, not only within our professions, but in new areas, recognizing that the true professional is a life-involved person, and not just a job-involved one. We must see ourselves as perpetual students, keeping active intellectually and searching for ways to make a contribution to others. The greatest danger we face is to disengage from life and surrender to aging. This in not only debilitating, but also invites disease and death into our life, displacing the life-giving forces.
Most of what happens to us physically is within our control. Of course, death is inevitable; but there is too much in life to be experienced and enjoyed before the inevitable actually occurs. How well we live up to that moment is not only our responsibility, but a God-given privilege and joy.
Imagine one of your aboriginal ancestors, a "cave man," if you will. He get up in the morning and come out of his cave, leaving his mate and child behind, still sleeping. It is a beautiful day; the air is clean and the sun is shining. He walks to a stream that runs about 80 feet from the cave, takes a drink of sweet, cool water, splashes some on his face, and is filled with a sense of peace and security. He walks back toward the cave when suddenly he see a saber-tooth tiger standing between him and the mouth of the cave, eyeing him with a hungry look.
What happens next to this man? Immediately, his autonomic nervous system reacts to bring on the so-called "flight or fight" response. Adrenaline is dumped into his blood stream, bringing about a host of physical reactions: his pupils contract to sharpen vision; lung capacity expands to take in more oxygen; his heart beats more rapidly, pumping oxygen around his body faster; pores open and pour cooling sweat onto his skin; his bowel and bladder may evacuate themselves; his muscles tense. This series of physical changes insures that if he chooses flight he will run faster and further before exhaustion; if he chooses fight, he will fight with greater strength and endurance. This is all part of the body's defense system designed to support our survival.
Nature intends "flight" as the primary option, because running away gives us a better chance at survival. Notice any animal that is startled with a potential danger: it will invariably opt to run, unless there is an overriding reason not to. The man in the story, though, cannot run; his spouse and child are in the cave, and he must protect them. "Fight" is his only choice.
As his body tenses for the encounter, he moves toward the tiger, crouched and preparing for the kill. At that moment, the man spies a wedge-shaped rock in the sand. He reaches for it as the tiger starts its leap, and smashes the rock into the tiger's head just before its teeth are at his throat. The tiger crashes to the ground, dead.
A sense of elation and relief floods the man's body, as homeostasis returns; adrenaline ceases its course through his body and the flight/fight reactions all return to normal. After he stops to catch his breath, he is quickly back to the sense of peace and well-being he had at the stream, with an added sense of elation because now he has tiger meat, as well.
Each of us has our saber-toothed tigers, be they within our work or profession, family, parishioners, government or relationship. Living in today's civilization imposes extensive and severe restrictions on our more natural, impulse-motivated reactions.
We can't simply take a wedge-shaped paperweight to crush the head of the source of our stress. The law does not look too kindly on murder, and we frequently are in a position wherein we can not rage back or even let our anger show. Herein lies the problem. There is no release for the bodily reaction to this stress. We might even find ourselves reliving the event in fantasy, replaying all kinds of scenes about what we would like to have said and done. And because it was not expelled, the state of readiness for flight or fight remains.
This chronic state of arousal weakens our immunity and wears down organ systems, a physical and psychological effect that is a contributing factor to every disease known to us.
Three ways that stress can be dealt with.
However, it is important that these be used in the order presented.
The first and primary way to cope with stress is to problem solve, that is to address the situation that is making us feel stressed. This is the most effective strategy. Whether it involves speaking directly to someone and expressing our feelings or opinions, or making a major life change by looking for a new assignment or ending a relationship, addressing forthrightly what is causing our stress should be our first priority.
It is a mistake, and likely harmful to us, to unnecessarily stay within a stressful situation and use a relaxation technique to reduce the stress. The more empowered we feel to exercise control over what happens to us, the less stressed we are going to be. Knowing that I can do something about my problem is to make the problem manageable. Also, a feeling of helplessness is itself a stress, which only adds to the already existing stress. Anger is the single greatest stressor. To remain angry at a situation or person without feeling able to express that anger in some way, often makes the existing stressor intolerable.
But sometimes it is next to impossible to address the cause directly, or even if we do everything that can be done, the stress persists.
The second mode of coping with stress is to do a cognitive reappraisal. Cognitive reappraisal is based on the principle that how we interpret the event is more significant than the event itself in inducing stress. For example, the person who perceives a failure as an opportunity for growth is significantly less stressed than the person who perceives it as further evidence of their total incompetency.
The techniques that lead to a cognitive restructuring are innumerable. Using religious/spiritual beliefs to reframe is one method of cognitive restructuring. So too is facing our tendency to catastrophize by talking things through with a friend who we know can help us get things back in perspective. Of special concern here are irrational thoughts or beliefs that have become so deeply imbedded in us that they arise spontaneously and contribute significantly to our stress level. Some of the more common ones are:
- A belief that I must be in control of everything at all times; this is patently impossible, but if I believe it then my stress level is going to be off-the-scale.
- Another is that I must be perfect; everything that I do must be done perfectly or else it will be seen as a failure. We can readily see how much more stressful this is going to make life than if we give things our best effort and beyond that, the success or failure is out of our hands.
- Another irrational thought that plagues many is the belief that everyone should love me; if one does not, something catastrophic will happen. Again, we can sense how stressful interpersonal relationships will be.
There are many other irrationalities with which we burden ourselves. The technique of cognitive restructuring involves looking at what irrational beliefs we hold that are adding to the stress of the situation. Attempts at cognitive restructuring are what we do for a friend when he comes to us looking to unburden his stress. The success or failure of our efforts to help rest on our being able to recognize the fallacies behind his stress reaction and our facility in helping him reframe how he is looking at the situation.
But sometimes the cognitive work fails too.
Then we need to move to the third coping mode. This is the one that is most often addressed in stress workshops and, although they have great value, represent a danger if used to replace modes 1 or 2. These techniques all involve some method of relaxation that counteracts the components of the stress response, thereby providing a sense of relief from the strain of stress. Such techniques include methods of progressive relaxation, biofeedback formats, and so on.
Actually, all methods of decreasing stress through relaxation are best if they become a regular part of our daily schedule, rather than resorted to only in times of great stress. They need not involve expensive equipment or professional training. Being able to immerse oneself in a good book, meditation, prayer, long walks, or vigorous exercise can help us all to "lose our minds" for awhile and find escape from "our troubles".
Someone once asked a President of France that if he had one piece of advice to give to a leader of a country, what would it be. Without hesitating he responded, "to listen to Mozart for a half- hour each day." Music is a great de-stressor, but so are movies, theater, travel and having a place of solitude. Each of us needs to find what works best for us, being careful to find one that is not in itself potentially harmful. We all know that alcohol can function as a "de-stressor," but the potential for using alcohol abusively and thereby harming ourselves is great. But that does not negate the need for us to find ways of achieving relaxation, of "de-stressing," that work for us, and to make them a regular part of our life.
3. Spiritual Wellness
What is meant by "spirituality?" I believe that is really a rather simple thing, possessed, often unwittingly, by people regardless of race, culture, education, intelligence, or religion. Spirituality is not something we acquire, rather it is at the core of our being, natural to us. If we endure an inconvenience to help someone in distress, sacrifice something of value in order to make another happy, or endure some pain to relieve another of a greater pain, we feel an enhanced sense of inner peace and personal satisfaction.
We, as a society, honour those who ignore their own safety and self-interest for the sake of another, make them heroes, give them medals, or build monuments to acknowledge their deeds. On the other hand, we abhor those who refuse to assist another, or who never allows another's welfare to take preference over their own. This instinctive awareness in service to one another and to the common good is fundamental to the development of spirituality.
In its simplest terms, spirituality can be defined as whatever calls us to self-transcendence. It is that which motivates us away from self-focus or self-seeking, and inspires giving priority to the welfare of another. This can be a campaign or cause, like the pro-life movement, environmental causes, child welfare, world peace, or any involvement that calls us away from self-centredness to the pursuit of a broader good.
Spirituality has even become a serious concern of business executives, in the workplace, among athletes, and in the entertainment world.
Much of this I rejoice in. However, when the search for a deepened sense of spirituality is accompanied by statements such as "I am a spiritual person (or on a spiritual journey), but I'm not very religious," then I begin to be troubled.
He replied, "You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbour as yourself." Jesus said to him, "You have answered right, do this and life is yours."
This new spirituality often freely avails itself of the accoutrements of religious symbols, sacramentals, vestments, etc. but one tends to sense an underlying and pervading shallowness or emptiness. Many of the beliefs and practices in these constructed spiritualities are purely private, evade the full challenge of religious belief as God-centred as opposed to human centred, and are often quite naive about how we, individually and corporately, function.
I have been invited to many "retreats," even to be a presenter at such experiences, and left with the feeling that it was a nice get together but God was either not invited or declined to attend!
A number of shortcomings come to mind.
First, lacking roots in a tested wisdom tradition or community of criticism, such spiritualities are not only prone to remaking all the mistakes of the past but also, more seriously, to extremism and fanaticism. Those who lack the personal intensity to become extremists are likely to drift into spiritual lethargy in the absence of a community of support and encouragement. Community, although never perfect, is an indispensable context for a wise and sustained spirituality.
Second, personal spiritualities composed of a variety of intrinsically unrelated practices must draw on equally unrelated beliefs to sustain and guide the practice. Rigid dogmatism is not the answer. But the consistency of a thoughtful and critical systematic theology is a crucial structural support for the faith and morality that are integral to any spirituality. A general benevolence based on the golden rule is unlikely to ground either costly respect for the enemy or the active commitment to social justice.
Third, a disaffiliated spirituality, while it may respond well to someone's current felt needs, has no past and no future. It defines spirituality as a private pursuit for personal gain and is naively narcissistic. Although the person may be attempting to respond to a reality, he or she remains the sole arbiter of who God is and what God asks.
A nineteenth century Hindu mystic, Ramakrishnan, once told a story about an orphaned tiger cub. This tiger cub, whose mother had been killed by hunters, was found by a herd of goats and raised with their young to believe that he too was a goat. One day the goats were out in the jungle, grazing in a clearing, when in stalked a great king-tiger. His fierce roar terrified the goats who ran off into the surrounding jungle. Suddenly, the tiger-cub, who thought he was a goat, found himself all alone in the presence of the king-tiger.
At first, the tiger-cub was afraid and could only bleat and sniff in the green grass. But then he discovered that, although he was afraid, yet he was not afraid Ð at least not like the others who had run off to hide. The king-tiger looked at the cub and let our a great roar. But all the tiger-cub could do was to bleat and gambol in the grass. The great tiger, realizing then that the cub imagined himself to be a goat, took him by the scruff of the neck and carried him to a pond. On the clear surface of the pond the cub would be able to see that he was like the great tiger. But all the cub did, when he saw their images mirrored side by side was to bleat, goatwise, in a questioning and frightened way.
The king-tiger made one last effort to show the cub, who thought he was a goat, what he really was. He put before the cub a piece of meat. At first the cub recoiled from it in horror. But then, coming closer, he tasted it. Suddenly his blood was warmed by it. And the tiger-cub, who thought he was a goat, lifted his head and set the jungle echoing with a mighty roar.
This story can readily be applied to the Christian's experience.
Out of the jungle of the night this burning tiger, the Word of God, comes to tell us who we are, to reveal to us what we were made for. He first forces us, we tiger-cubs who think we are goats, to recognize our smallness, to see that we have been and are foolish and slow to believe. He thrusts before us our image.
But curiously Ð we see ourselves only with him. We learn to look upon ourselves by looking also at the image of him who had first to suffer and thus enter into glory. In the mirror of Scripture we see Christ and ourselves, and become a little less foolish and not quite so slow to believe. It is only when he warms our blood with the food he brought to us, the Eucharist, that we really know who he is and who we truly are.
It is only then that we can escape the limitations of our supposed goathood, and with a roar acknowledge the truth. Jesus, the king-tiger and revealer, must walk into our lives and show us precisely who we are by showing us who he is. We too find ourselves when we find Christ and his community, or are rather found by him and them.
We are to be "a people of life and for life." For whom life is a gift and a duty.
☩ Frederick Henry