Category Archives: Purpose

Live Out Loud

Mice kept on a diet that is healthy (but absolutely no fun at all) in which their caloric intake was restricted to only 70% of what’s considered “normal” lived 30 to 40% longer than the usual lifespan.  The only downside of this restriction was that the mice were less fertile than their non-restricted counterparts. 

Most people can’t restrict calories for long, so, according to the New York Times, scientists are trying to find a drug that tricks the body into thinking it’s eating fewer calories.  The problem is that all of these restricted calorie experiments are done on captive mice, who are selected for quick breeding and who are fed on rich diets.  A low-calorie diet could be much closer to the diet that mice are adapted to in the wild, extending their life simply because it is much healthier for them.  Mice don’t live that long, anyway.  Humans have a longer life span, and that extended duration of time on the planet leaves us more vulnerable to cancers.

So, after 20 years of experimenting with caloric restriction on monkeys in captivity, studies found the monkeys were healthier (i.e., they had fewer incidents of diabetes, cancer, and heart disease), but their life span was not significantly longer.  Eating more prudently than we generally do, therefore, was good for quality of life, but not for quantity of life.

And that’s the point of my taking on this issue in the first place.  People call my radio program knowing they’re probably going to die of some particular terminal disease they have.  They call me, because they’re spending each day suffering emotionally over the realization that they will soon be dead.  My response to one woman in this situation was to wake up each morning and yell out loud:  “Damn – I’m not dead!  Today, I’m gonna LIVE OUT LOUD!!!”  The point of our being upset about death is the realization that we’ve lost all we value in life.  So, take each day that you’re not dead to live life to the fullest.  Enjoy that day you’re not dead.  Don’t waste one precious moment of it.

Come to think of it, that’s good advice for everyone, since at different times, and at different rates, we’re all terminal.  Don’t waste one minute of life.

Live Like You Were Dyin’

This is a short (and not so sweet) blog.  Recently, I found out that a couple I know have been dealt a terrible blow.  Beginning last January, the husband noticed his wife stopped doing her complicated crossword puzzles.  Now he’s dealing with the fact that the love of his life has Stage IV Alzheimer’s disease.  While it is unusual for all of this to evolve so quickly, the horrible reality is that they have to deal with this news at a time in their lives when their only concern should be thinking of having fun with their grandchildren.

Also not long ago, I read a letter on my radio program from a woman who commented about a caller who complained that her husband wasn’t willing or able to properly install their child’s car seat.  The letter writer told a story about her own family – her husband, also, struggled to properly secure their child’s car seat.  Then, not long after doing so, a huge truck “T-boned” their car and killed her husband, injuring his wife (who was the one who wrote to me), but leaving uninjured their 2½ year old child who was saved because of the properly secured car seat.

The lesson here?  You NEVER know what the day is going to bring.  For those of you who work so hard to preserve the hate and hurt from your past (so much so that the present is ruined, and the future automatically looks bleak), hear me out now:

 Today really is the first day of the rest of your life.
 Today, YOU are the architect of your life
 Today is the day available to enjoy the blessings you do have.

There may not be a tomorrow.  Don’t live as though you had all eternity to get fit, stop smoking, and give up abusing drugs, alcohol or food.  Be nice to others, work hard at something, give of yourself to someone else, and let go of excuses and “blaming” behavior.  You don’t have all eternity.  You only know for sure that you have right now.

Don’t waste it.

When Someone Believes in You

There’s an interesting program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro that aims to keep 12 to 18 year old girls in school, minus the sad drama of pregnancies or abortions.

The program is sponsored by College Bound Sisters.  Girls in the program attend 90-minute meetings every week, at which they receive lessons in abstinence and the use of contraceptives, and they receive one dollar per day that they are not pregnant.  The money is deposited into a fund that’s available for collection when they enroll in college.

Obviously, there are many who will say “Hey, bribery is not the correct way to handle such behavioral issues.”  But slow down and think about it – when a 12 year old believes that one dollar a day is a great incentive, it tells you two things:

1. the gentle maturity level of such young girls
2. how so very many young girls are hungry for direction

Keep in mind that 3 out of 10 young women become pregnant by age 20, and the costs associated with teen pregnancies exceed $9 BILLION annually.

So, what’s their track record?  According to the co-director of the program, 6 of the 125 who have been enrolled for 6 months or longer have gotten pregnant or otherwise dropped out since it began in 1997 (and it only costs $75,000 – not billion – to operate the program).  Recent graduates have left the program with up to $3,000 saved up for college.  Basically, the representatives of the program say “If someone believes in you, there’s no end to what a lot of people can accomplish.”

This reminds me of a patient I had years ago, who went from “ditzy” behavior and drug addiction to clean and sober.  She completed college and advanced nursing training, and has been employed ever since.  A little ego in me caused me to ask here, “What made the difference here?”  I thought she’d point out some brilliant intervention of mine.  Nope, not at all.  She pointed out that I had believed in her when no one else did, that she had respected me, and I respected her potential.  That made the difference in her outlook and choices.

So, when you’re confused as to how to really help someone, just believe in them, and let them know it.

Bribery?! Haven’t We Been There, Done That?

The Health section of The New York Times on March 2 debated the usefulness of bribing school children with money, toys, candy and electronic gizmos to have them attain better grades.

When I was in school, it was cute stickers and the pride of getting a good grade that you could brag about that made your parents all sorts of happy.  The good grade was the proximate award for all the hard work.  Getting the reputation as being smart was a good thing, and becoming valedictorian was great, as was qualifying for scholarships of all sizes for college.  Spending a lifetime knowing you worked hard and earned what you had the hard way was the long-term reward.

Now, some geniuses want to rob children of all of that.  These greater minds than ours want children to fight for things of substance (money) rather than for things of glory (purpose).  Not all endeavors have a high rate of financial return:  a hospice worker helps the dying and their families face their fears of death; a fireman runs into burning buildings to save complete strangers from a horrible death; kindergarten teachers introduce our children to the world of budding independence, self-confidence, social maneuvering and the alphabet…and that’s only a few examples.

Frankly, we need more kind and compassionate people than we do more “A” students in this world, as it turns out that the greatest thieves (many CEOs, crooked politicians and Ponzi scheme giants), terrorist masterminds, and general sociopaths all have very high IQ levels and got great grades.

How about us giving financial rewards, candy and electronic gizmos to kids who go out of their way not to bully, tease, steal, lie, sexually harass, or sexually act-out?  Or to those who won’t drink or take drugs or steal or backtalk their elders? 

Would that work, I wonder?

Novelist David Foster Wallace’s Ironic Commencement Speech

Friday, September 19, 2008, I was reading the last page of the “Weekend Journal” in The Wall Street Journal.  It was adapted from a commencement speech given by David Foster Wallace to the 2005 graduating class at Kenyon College.  Mr. Wallace, 46, died recently, an apparent suicide.

I thought it odd that an entire page of The Wall Street Journal was dedicated to the musings of a man who opted out of life after giving advice to young people just beginning their adult foray into the trials and tribulations of existence.

The main focus of his presentation to the students seemed to be on the issue of self-centeredness:  “It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth.  Think about it:  there is no experience you’ve had that you were not at the absolute center of.  The world as you experience it is right there in front of you, or behind you, to the left or right of you, on your TV, or your monitor, or whatever.  Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real – you get the idea.  But please don’t worry that I’m getting ready to preach to you about compassion or other-directedness or the so-called ‘virtues.’  This is not a matter of virtue – it is a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting, which is to be deeply and literally self-centered, and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self.”

First, he is “right on” with the hard-wiring of self-centeredness.  I remember my mother telling me once that when, as a teenager, she experienced the death of her mother from breast cancer, and was consumed with grief, that she looked out her window to see people outside driving, walking, talking, and going about their business as though nothing had happened.  She related feeling shocked that, somehow, the whole world did not stand still as did her own heart.

It is obvious that, of course, we are the most absorbed by our immediate environment and experiences….which pretty much means ourselves.  However, Mr. Wallace’s consistent dismissal of virtues is perhaps what was missing from his life. Seeing, acknowledging, and caring about others does not necessarily come naturally.  It is a virtue taught by parents and community as well as by religious teachings.  One of the most central aspects of religious training is to “love thy neighbor.”  Why?  Just because it’s “nice?”  No, although it is nice.  It is because caring for those outside yourself gives you a connectedness that minimized loneliness and a purpose which minimizes despair.

Towards the end of his speech, he points out:  “The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little un-sexy ways, every day.  That is real freedom.”

He then asks the audience to “please don’t dismiss it as some finger-wagging Dr. Laura sermon.  None of this is about morality, or religion, or dogma or big fancy questions of life after death.  It is about making it to 30 or maybe 50, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head.”

So, in attempting to enlighten the young people about a bigger value in life – commitment and obligation to others – he came back to his essential hard-wiring:  it is all about living in a way which makes you not want to kill yourself.  Ironically, his thought process came all the way back to being self-centered.

In eschewing morality, religion, dogma, considerations of eternity – all of which he assembled under “finger-wagging Dr. Laura sermon[s],” he disconnected himself from the kind of motivation, identification, support and spiritual reward which may have kept him from committing suicide.  Sad, really.

It’s Not Over Until …

As I have mentioned on the air many times, I race sailboats.  I’ve won some races and lost some, but the favorite wins have been the ones that I least expected would or could happen.  I remember the time that we were over early at the start and had to do a penalty turn of 360 degrees, after getting out of the way of the other starting boats.  We had a heck of a time starting again, as, by the time we finished our penalty turn, many boats were already in our way. 

This incident happened early on in my sailing training, and I became despondent almost immediately, because I realized we now had absolutely no chance of even a third place finish, let alone a first.  My coach and tactician sternly yanked me out of my doldrums and told me that we were “down but not out,” and we had to work even harder now to catch up.  Frankly, I thought this was philosophically lovely, but hugely impractical, and I could barely see the sterns of the boats in front of us as they had so much distance on us.

Nonetheless, after considering breeze, windshifts, current, direction choices, steering, and crew work, there were enough variables to work with to keep our chins up. 

We pulled together as a team, and worked very hard to maximize every option we had, and we ended up winning the race.  I learned a lot that day.  It’s a lot more gratifying to succeed when it is a righteous challenge than when it seems like more of a slam dunk.

Jason Lezak knew this lesson.  Fifty meters from the finish line in the 4x 100 meter freestyle relay at the Beijing Olympics, Mr. Lezak doubted he could overcome the half-body length lead of his French opponent, Alain Bernard, who also happened to hold the world record in the 100-meter freestyle.

Instead of just accepting the probable loss, a determined Mr. Lezak pulled grit from down deep, and swam the fastest he’s ever done, and touched the electronically sensored wall, winning by eight one-hundredths of a second.  He shattered a world record and won a gold medal. 

And then he heard the fat lady sing…the American national anthem!

Endurance and Purpose: Antidotes to Despair

Last month, I was asked to write a note to wives of Los Angeles SWAT team members (“warrior wives”) after a SWAT officer was killed in a real life incident.  I thought it made sense to share it with all of you:

Not long ago, I received an award from a Native American patriot group for being “the proud mother of a deployed American paratrooper.”  The representatives of this group travel the country giving special awards to military personnel and their families honoring their efforts, sacrifices, and suffering.  Part of the quite moving ceremony was that I was given a Native American name.  The representative of the tribe said that he got special permission from the elders to do so, and that he prayed to the spirits for many days until they told him what name to give me:  Walks With Warriors.

The obvious irony is that I talk about “warriors” with great reverence and respect almost every day on my radio program.  Modern-day warriors include the military, firemen, and the police.  These folks elect to put themselves in harm’s way for perfect and imperfect strangers.  Why?  Because as the hot dog commercial touted, they “obey a higher power.”  That higher power is purpose.

When my son volunteered for the military, I was at once proud and scared.  I talked to him just before he left for basic training and said something like “You know, honey, this is not like a video game or shooting targets.  There will be young men on the other side trying to kill you before you kill them.”  “Mom,” he replied, nonplussed while I was reverberating with discomfort, “the way I drive, I could get killed on the freeway.  Of course, I don’t want to die or even get hurt.  And some day, I’m going to die anyway, because, eventually, we all do.  If I die in combat, I will at least have died for a noble purpose.”

I was stunned.  My eighteen year old wild kid had overnight turned into a man who understood that a life without purpose is the greatest loss.  The constant memory of that conversation is what buoys me as a mother of a combat soldier.  I’m so proud.

I have used my own experience to help the mothers, wives, and children of warriors; I help them understand that they are not just wives, mothers, and children – they are warrior wives, warrior mothers, and warrior children – and provide them real back-up for these extraordinary people  The sacrifice of time, energy, commitment, financial riches, and sometimes life and limb, make these warriors and their families special and deserving of infinitely more respect than they get by some who don’t appreciate the price of freedom from enemies foreign and domestic, as well as from natural disasters.

I am reminded of a scene from the Yul Brynner version of the film, “The Magnificent Seven.” It takes place in Mexico, where a small village is one of the many terrorized by a roving gang of Mexican bandits preying on their own.  Yul and six of his gun-slinging buddies are hired to protect the town.  The scene of most importance to the issue of heroes and warriors is one in which one of the gunslingers tries to shoo away two young boys who are enthralled with him as a warrior and hero.  One of them insults his own father, calling him a coward.  The gunman grabs him and yells at him (I’m paraphrasing here):  “We’re just men with guns.  Your fathers are the real heroes.  They work hard every day trying to squeeze food from the dirt to take care of your mothers and siblings.  They struggle against the forces of nature and the evil of bandits.  And they survive to protect and provide for you – they are the real heroes!”

The truth is, we need both.  We need those willing to fight evil and disasters and we need those who toil each day supporting those warriors and the life they have us live.  When we lose “one of ours,” and collapse into negativity and despair, we destroy 1) what they built, and 2) what they lost.  Their deaths are best honored by our continuing to do what they lived for:  to have wonderful, productive, happy, and safe lives. 

Don’t take what they lost and waste it with self-pity and rage.  Take what they lost and honor their memory and their efforts by squeezing every ounce of joy that life,  love, relationships, hobbies, work, family, and just plain smelling the lilacs can give.

We most honor the deaths of warriors by continuing their commitment, not by giving up on our own. 

A respected rabbi once said:  “Despair is a cheap excuse for avoiding one’s purpose in life.  And a sense of purpose is the best way to avoid despair.”  I have relied on this sentiment many times as despair has grabbed at my feet.  I hope this helps you.

My heart is with all of you, past and present.

Dr. Laura C. Schlessinger