Killing ourselves softly

People with MS, especially the newly diagnosed, often ask, “Is MS fatal?” The good news is, in general, it isn’t. People with cases advanced enough can die from side effects such as infections and pneumonia, but that’s invariably late in life. The conventional wisdom is that the average life span for someone with MS is about the same as someone without the disease.

The one nasty character in this picture, however, is the ugly cousin no one talks about: Suicide. People with MS take their own lives about twice as often as others. That’s sad.

What might be worse is the rate at which people are subtly ending their own lives, without even knowing it. According to this New York Times article from last month, there is an affliction threatening the well-being of everyone in our society, not just those with MS and other chronic illnesses.

Yes, the article tells us, our isolation is killing us, whether we know it (or believe it) or not. Note this paragraph of particular significance to people with MS:

A wave of new research suggests social separation is bad for us. Individuals with less social connection have disrupted sleep patterns, altered immune systems, more inflammation and higher levels of stress hormones. [Emphasis added]

Altered immune systems? Inflammation? Those of us with MS are intimately familiar with those. (And don’t even get me started on stress.) Now here’s a simple way to positively impact those problems and we have complete control over it.

The answer? “Get together”, as Jesse Colin Young and his Youngbloods told us back in the 60’s. (Ah! Those were the days of peace, love, and rock’n’roll.) Spend time with other people, whether it’s a support group, church, or just hanging out with friends.

This isn’t news. Wise old Solomon said much the same thing a few thousand years ago:

Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor. If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up. Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone? Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.

I’ve also seen anecdotal evidence of this effect. It’s sad to see people drift away on a sinking ship of loneliness when help is as near as their neighbors. Or as near as me.

Why is it that people leap for the chance to take the latest and greatest expensive drugs, all of which have potentially devastating side effects, when this time-tested “social treatment” is available for free and has no side effects? We doubt the easier approach, although it’s backed up by the same scientific research used to test drugs.

The cynic in me says this has something to do with profits and bottom lines, but we all know pharmaceutical companies are philanthropic organizations, right? q.v.

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Seven years since the big truck went by…

Certain dates of infamy should never be forgotten. Here are just a few that come quickly to mind for most of us:

December 7, 1941

September 11, 2001

April 4, 1968

April 15, 1865

The sad list goes on and on. In our myopic American view of history, these dates—and I would add November 8, 2016 to the list—are the ones that we recall as most tragic because they affected us so directly. While indeed infamous in their own ways, the world has seen so many more and worse.

August 6, 1945 – How often are 50,000 (or more) lives exterminated in a single day? Another 100,000 or so died in the following months. And that doesn’t even include what happened three days later.

December 2, 1984 – Bhopal. Who even remembers this? Again, thousands die needlessly because of human negligence.

Seven years ago today, my heart was broken when an earthquake struck a land that is near and dear to me. Haiti. Many thousands died and millions more lost their homes in an instant. Some might say that this date is different than the aforementioned ones because an earthquake, unlike an atomic bomb, an assassin’s bullet, or an ignorant electorate, is an “act of God” rather than a human activity.

Well, yes and no.

An earthquake is a natural phenomenon, it’s true. But the poverty that was the root cause of most of the destruction and death is not. It is man-made. Often, as in the case of Haiti and other developing nations, it’s the poverty inflicted by malicious outside forces. Earthquakes strike all over the world on a semi-regular basis. Granted, few are as strong as the 7.0 tremblor that rocked Haiti on January 12, 2010, but worse quakes have caused significantly less mayhem. The poor always bear the brunt of the suffering.

And it will be the same next time. Unless.

It’s been rightly said, though not nearly often enough based on recent events, that those who forget history are condemned to repeat it. We are living proof. This kind of thing will happen again and again and the poor and oppressed will always be the prime victims. Are we comfortable watching all this suffering from our opulent homes and waiting for the next catastrophic event? I’m not.

Remember with me, not just in our minds or even our hearts but through our actions, Haiti and all who suffer needlessly.


[If you’re looking for a way to help, look no further than Partners in Health. They do tremendous work in Haiti and other countries where quality medical care is either scarce or nonexistent.]

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Lessons learned from a mother and daughter lost

reynolds-fisherAs everyone doubtless knows by now, actor Carrie Fisher died on 12/27 followed the next day by her mother, the immensely talented Debbie Reynolds. Both performed in arguably the most iconic films of their respective generations, “Star Wars” and “Singin’ in the Rain”.

By all accounts (possibly none of which are reliable) the two had a healthy mother-daughter relationship.

There’s nothing happy about this story. Ms. Fisher died an untimely death at age 60, far too young in this era of medical advances. Her mother survived to what would generally be considered the more reasonable age of 84. Still, Ms. Reynold’s passing is just as tragic. I have to believe the stress of planning her own daughter’s funeral took its toll on her and induced the stroke that took her life. Barring that, she would almost certainly be with us for several more years.

There are lessons to be learned here. The first is the extraordinary toll stress takes on the human body. I’ve experienced it in my own battle with MS. Specific identifiable instances of stress have been the triggers that have caused any setbacks I’ve experienced. Your mileage may vary, but avoiding stress or at least dealing with it in some healthy  manner can make a huge difference in your length and—more importantly—quality of life. (I’ve discussed my approach in previous posts, such as this one.)

Second, at the risk of sounding as if I’m casting stones, which I’m not, there’s a fair chance Ms. Fisher’s acknowledged abuse of drugs earlier in her life weakened her heart and might have led to the episode that ended her life. The principle is accepted by medical science; I’ve seen it happen with at least one person in my life. So much for the “victimless crime” of drug abuse. When will we treat addiction as the dangerous sickness it is?

Finally, of course, is the lesson of the brevity and preciousness of life. To squander it on selfishness and vain pursuits is a grave waste and a disservice to humanity and your Creator. Instead, consider the ultimate meaning of your life in light of eternity. As the current Pope’s namesake prayed:

Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.

O, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love; For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; it is in dying that we are born again to eternal life.

You and I are unlikely to leave behind a legacy of classic films and (spoiler alert!) CGI images. But we can do even better.

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Bonus Christmas post!

It’s a Christmas miracle! Two posts in one week. The catches? The other Christmas post is on my other blog, Scribbling in the Sand and I didn’t write it! It’s by some hack named “Longfellow”. (With a name like that, he must have gotten a lot of ribbing in middle school, especially if he was a short fellow.)

The other catch: I didn’t write this post either! It’s just a link to one of the best Christmas videos ever. It was created by a bunch of kids down in New Zealand who have a better grasp on Christmas than 99.9% of the other creators of modern Christmas-related stories.

Here’s the video: An Unexpected Christmas.


Merry Christmas. God bless us, every one.

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Twas the week before Christmas…

Twas the week before Christmas, so there was little time
to spend on a blog post or create a short rhyme.
My first book is gathering dust on a shelf.*
The next one is not going to publish itself

I wish I was nestled all snug in my bed,
but thoughts of this deadline dance in my head.
A blog post this week won’t be missed anyway.
I might as well punt the attempt for today.

But as I considered postponing the pain,
an interesting thought lit up in my brain!
Rather than light a candle or curse,
Why not parody a holiday verse?

But that poem is long and my time is constrained,
and the once a week schedule has been preordained.
So I’ll publish this bad boy to fulfill my vow,
but I’ll keep it real short and end it right now.

Merry Christmas!

Shameless Christmas self-promotion: Books make a perfect gift. Why not give that special someone this special book: “A Slippery Land”. Half of gross sales go to Haitian relief efforts till end of 2016.

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Holding hands, praying with Haitian partners, before working to build a school.

I’ve been reading a book (actually, two books) by one of my heroes, Dr. Paul Farmer. Besides being co-founder of and active participant in an organization that is changing the world for the better, a teacher at Harvard Medical School, and a practicing medical professional, he writes books and makes speeches to encourage others to follow his example of serving the underserved. He’s fighting for justice in an unjust world, bringing medical care to those who need and benefit from it most but can afford it least.

The organization in question is called Partners in Health. That name is not an accident. In one book I’m currently in the midst of, “To Repair the World“, Farmer is making a commencement address to a group of college graduates. In his speech, he claims:

“…with rare exceptions, all of your most important achievements on this planet will come from working with others—or, in a word, partnership.” (emphasis his)

It should come as no surprise to anyone who knows me or has read more than a few of these posts that I agree wholeheartedly with Dr. Farmer. Contrary to the claims of a certain megalomaniac who thinks he alone is the solution to all the world’s problems, community is essential to progress of any kind. Yes, friends, it does take a village, not only to raise a child but to repair the world and our own lives.

Scripture tends to agree with this assessment. A select couple of verses (among many, many others) to the point:

Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken.

And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

Twelve humble and often faltering apostles proved the value of working together. They changed the world.

We can, too.

But not alone.

Partnerships, what I usually call community, serve others and ourselves. I’ve written extensively about the value of community as part of a (are you ready for the buzzword?) holistic approach to living with MS. If you care to review some of those posts (there could be a quiz later) read here or here. Or here. Or here.

An oft-used metaphor to drive home these points is that of burning coals. Pile a heap of coal together (or charcoal or even wood) and set it on fire. The coals will soon be glowing and generating heat. Now pull one of the pieces of coal off to the side. (Use tongs unless you enjoy excruciating pain.) In a short time, the single chunk of coal will lose its light and its heat. Meanwhile, the original heap (or community, if you will) will be just as intense as ever.

That’s the value of partnership, a.k.a. community. There is almost nothing of lasting and great positive value that can be accomplished alone. (Lots of negatives: loneliness, selfishness, alienation.) That’s why Lincoln (and Jesus a few years earlier) said:

A house divided against itself cannot stand.

Yet it is my contention that this world is doing everything it can to divide the house of humanity, to deny and even destroy partnerships. Think cell phones, TV, internet addiction, home theater, the demise of community organizations, commuting alone, broken families, the rise of adversarial communication, the disappearing “family meal”, and so much more.


Is there a malevolent force working against the good of humanity? Is someone profiting from the divide-and-conquer approach? Are we unwittingly and foolishly killing ourselves? All of the above?

You can try to work out that puzzle. I’ll just work on the flip side: working in partnerships and building community.

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Happy World Toilet Day 2016

Yes, it’s that day again and here’s a little factoid for you to consider:

Sewage runs through the alleys of Kibera Slum, Nairobi, Kenya January 2006

This ain’t no joke, friends. It’s life and death.

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