Just What the Doctor Ordered

strawberryDr. Robert Emmons is a professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, who specializes in the “science of gratitude.” Yes, the science of it, as he and his colleagues have discovered quantifiable, measurable proof that gratitude is good for you.

According to he and his partners’ findings, thankfulness can lower blood pressure, boost immunity, reduce anxiety, and increase resiliency. Further, grateful people are those most likely to exercise, least likely to abuse drugs or alcohol, and are generally healthier and happier with their lives.

Researchers are convinced that this is more than the “power of positive thinking.” Gratitude roots people in the present moment of their lives. They learn to appreciate today, the “now,” and have chosen to focus on what they already have – at this moment – instead of focusing on the things they’ve been deprived of, or what they still want or can’t get.

Dr. Emmons prescribes a daily regiment of thoughtful thanksgiving. For he sake of your health, recognize and appreciate the gifts, graces, benefits, and people that you have in your life. He says, “This is how gratitude blocks toxic emotions such as envy, resentment, and regret, which can destroy one’s happiness. It is impossible for a person to feel envious and grateful at the same time.”

Accordingly, there is a masterful Zen story – often repeated by the late Brennan Manning – about a monk who was being chased by a tiger. The ferocious animal pursued the monk to the edge of a steep cliff where it appeared he had no escape. It was then, miraculously, the monk spotted a rope dangling over the edge.

He grabbed hold of it, and with sweaty palms and knobby knees, began shimmying down the side of the cliff to avoid the clutches of the tiger. Though safely out of his pursuer’s reach, the monk was horrified to see two mice emerge from holes in the side of the cliff and begin chewing on the rope.

So, there he was. Hundreds of feet in the air, he couldn’t go up, where the tiger would devour him, and he couldn’t go down, as there was not enough rope for him to reach the canyon floor below. All the while, tiny teeth nibbled away at his lifeline.

It was at that moment that a beautiful, red, ripe strawberry caught the monk’s attention. It was there, within arm’s reach, growing out of the face of the cliff. The monk picked it, ate it, and exclaimed, “That is the best strawberry I have tasted in my entire life!”

Manning offers the moral to the story: “If the monk had been preoccupied with the rocks below or the tiger above, he would have missed the present moment.” And concluding with a prescription for happiness that is just what the doctor ordered, he writes: “Life is best lived when you don’t focus on the tigers of the past or the jagged rocks of the future, but on the strawberries that come in the here and now.”

“Against the Dying of the Light”

twilightThe Welsh poet Dylan Thomas began his writing career while still a teenager. He dropped out of school, much to the chagrin of his father who was an English teacher, to pursue his literary interests, and was a published author before he was twenty years of age.

His works and words were deeply emotional, charged with passion, and at times obsessed with death, particularly challenging the finality of the old Grim Reaper. One of his first publications was entitled, “And Death Shall Have No Dominion,” an audacious kicking against the darkness to be sure.

But his most famous work, written as his own father lay dying, is the acclaimed, “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night.” The opening stanza, read at many a memorial service, says all you need to know about Thomas: “Do not go gentle into that good night; Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

These words are defiant and furious, descriptive of so many personal battles. Just observe a young person diagnosed with cancer; a soldier brought home from the battlefield with crippling injuries; a man or woman who survives that “widow-maker” heart attack. Something remarkable often happens with such people.

They have the wind knocked out of them, certainly, but they don’t lie down to die. They find the rave and rage to fight “against the dying of the light,” refusing to “go gentle into that good night.” From somewhere they find the rebellious strength to recover, to live, and to thrive.

This strength, in my experience and observation, is not superhuman, as if these individuals can conjure up an internal fortitude that others cannot tap into. It is more than the “endurance of the human spirit.” It is another kind of Spirit. It is supernatural. It appears to come from somewhere else altogether.

In Eugene Peterson’s translation of the Book of Hebrews, he talks about “adrenaline shot into our souls.” That seems to be an able description, for “raging against the dying of the light” requires more than physical strength. It takes emotional, mental, and spiritual power.

So, all this talk of defiance should not make you feel like you should try harder; that you should trim down, bulk up, work out, and dig in. It’s not like that. True power comes from powerlessness. It comes from surrender. It is the result of finding a strength outside one’s self.

In the words of the good book – that’s the Big Blue Book of A.A. – “We admit we are powerless, and believe that a Power greater than ourselves can restore us.” Then, the weaker one gets, paradoxically, the stronger one becomes. That is the true source of strength.

No, you don’t have to be stronger, better, faster, tougher, holier, or “more” anything. You simply have to hang in there. By God’s help and grace, you can do exactly that, and find the holy chutzpah to live the life you have been given.

Anger Danger

Beale“We all know things are bad – worse than bad – they’re crazy,” began the fictional Howard Beale in the film entitled, “Network.” An emotionally disturbed news anchor whose life had begun to unravel, Beale revitalizes his career by “articulating popular rage.”

He advises his audience, “I don’t want you to protest. I don’t want you to riot. I don’t want you to write to your Congressman, because I wouldn’t know what to tell you to write. I don’t know what to do about the depression and the inflation and the Russians and the crime in the street. All I know is that first, you’ve got to get mad.”

And then, delivering one of the more classic lines in the history of all cinema, Beale (played by Oscar winner Peter Finch) says, “I want you to get up right now and go to the window, open it, and stick your head out and yell, ‘I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!’”

Eerily prescient, screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky delivered a masterpiece with “Network,” foretelling the future of cable news when broadcast stations would make their money on being aggrieved, selling rage to a susceptible audience. For all the credible truth-seeking voices out there (and there are many), this truth remains: Media, politics, and society are filled with the Beale-like “mad prophets of the airwaves.”

They offer no light, only heat. They can produce no solutions, they can only scorch the earth. They offer neither truth nor thoughtful commentary, only divisiveness. “The acts of the flesh are obvious,” Paul said, and among them are “hatred, discord, and fits of rage.” The Proverbs warn that such people, those who deal in the currency of fermenting anger, “Plant seeds of strife…separate the best of friends; and lead their companions down a harmful path.”

We fail to heed the dangers of such paths, drawn as we are into the game of “winning.” If our side can come out on top (whichever side that is at the time), then all means to that victorious end are justified. This “winner take all approach” more times than not leaves nothing for the loser, and very little for the winner; for all that remains is wreckage.

A Southern proverb comes to mind, one I heard often growing up. I would be told, “A dog can kill any hog in the pen, son, but he’ll have to get down in the mud to do it. And the hog likes the mud.” More times than we wish to admit, that’s where uncontrolled, unbridled anger takes us. We might be the winner in the end, but are so soiled by the victory, it can hardly be counted worth it.

Returning to the furious Howard Beale, how does his story conclude? He winds up lifeless on the floor, struck down by the violence that his own madness produced, with everything he had built on bluster, crashing down with him. Unfettered, weaponized anger, rarely has any other result.