Friday, March 17, 2006

Never Buy A Shade-Tree in Hell

When The Exit Door Will Do Just As Well

There are times in our lives when each of us will be tempted to trade-up when we really need to opt-out. This is not a unique attribute of modern times but has been with us for thousands of years. I was reminded of this recently while reading H. W. Brands biography of Andrew Jackson. He recounts the story of Jean Laffite, the "French General", around the time of the Battle of New Orleans. Laffite was a pirate and slave trader who operated near the mouth of the Mississippi. Laffite rationalized his slave trade very simply. Brands says, "Purchasers got what they wanted: cheap slaves. Sellers got what they wanted: profits." By Laffite's way of thinking the slaves benefited as well. Most of them were coming from the West Indies where conditions were horrible compared to Louisiana where conditions were, well, not much better than horrible. The problem was they were still slaves. They were "traded up" to a more comfortable spot in hell (under a shade-tree), but they were still in hell.

The Golden Handcuffs

It's not the early nineteenth century anymore, but even the best of us can still rationalize our actions in such ways. We don't have to be slave traders or slaves to do it. It may be a job or relationship that creates the undesirable environment within which we find ourselves living. Something about it isn't working or may even be toxic to us. Along comes a pay raise, promotion, new title or promise of a change in the relationship and we stay further trapped in that environment. We traded-up or negotiated a temporary peace settlement and in doing so dug our heals in deeper. The reward was an illusion of relief just as a shade-tree in hell. Real relief in such an environment only comes when we opt-out and make way for the exit door.

"So often-times it happens that we live our lives in chains never knowing that we have the key."
The Eagles

As people develop greater autonomy there comes with it greater responsibility. No longer are we bound by a single owner, ruler or powerful elite. Each of us must define the environment in which we are willing to exist and the conditions under which we will continue to exist. Too often we can be persuaded to stay in an environment or under conditions that are antagonistic to our growth and ultimately to the growth of those around us. Enticements to stay that do not fundamentally change the environment or conditions in such a way as to encourage our growth and freedom are no better than a shade-tree in hell.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

The Beautiful Mind

The Right Question Is One Of Life's Most Important Answers

What is your favorite color? Where were you born? Who is your best friend? There is a very good chance that as you read each of those questions you also answered them. That is one of those amazing things about the human mind. You ask it a question and it gives you an answer. It doesn't matter how ridiculous or irrational the question, we feel compelled to answer it, even if only to ourselves. News reporters are very familiar with this property of the mind. Shows like 60 Minutes, Dateline and 20/20 have exploited this fundamental property for years. A reporter can ask any question and everyone watching is expecting an answer. To not answer the question out-loud almost seems rude, because we know the person being asked the question has already answered it in their mind.

A Fundamental Program Of The Mind

To answer a question, any question, even one we pose to ourselves and answer to ourselves seems innocuous. We can't imagine that a question could possibly harm us in any way. "It's just a question," we're told. There-in lies the issue at stake. We have a mind that is programmed to answer any question and will go to great lengths to seek out an answer, oftentimes any answer just to complete the fundamental program of the mind. (If "A", then "B". If question, then answer.) We often assume the question is justified only because it is asked, and that is how the fundamental program of the mind begins to break down and become potentially harmful.

What Can Go Wrong

Questions arise from our curiosity about the world in which we live. If our perceptions or beliefs aren't accurate this can lead to questions that seek out more inaccurate information. Have you ever heard someone ask, "What's wrong with me?" When we ask a question like this our mind goes to work on it immediately. It seeks answers and will attempt to find any evidence to support these answers even though there was no justification for even asking the question. The only thing wrong with you, up to this point, is you're asking the wrong question.

What Can Go Right

The fundamental program that creates this amazing property of the mind is one of the most powerful tools available to humans. Instead of asking "What's wrong with me?", we can ask ourselves, "What's right with me?" or "How can I have a great day today?" If you have spent a lifetime of asking the wrong questions it may take some practice, but the result is exactly the same. You will get an answer. It's the way we're hardwired. It's not so much that we must be careful what we ask ourselves; it is more that we need to take responsibility for what we ask ourselves. It is through the questions we ask ourselves on a daily basis that we create our internal milieu. Our mind can be a beautiful place to live if we choose to exercise the power granted to us through the questions we ask.

Monday, March 13, 2006

The Presence of Death & The Absence of Life

Not Your Everyday Conversation

Despite working in healthcare for years as a Trauma Surgeon and Surgical Intensivist it's rare for me to engage in a philosophical discussion with my colleagues on the meaning of life and death. Talk in the physician's lounge tends to focus on one of three general areas: The healthcare crisis, current affairs and finally, if we have time, patient care. About the only place you will hear anything philosophical discussed will be at an Ethics Committee meeting. So that is why it surprised me when an older, more experienced colleague of mine sat down in the lounge one day and brought up the topic of death with me.

How Do You Deal With Death?

He had a friend who recently suffered the loss of a child and was terribly devastated by this. His friend approached him because he knew he was a physician and might have some secret insight into understanding how to cope with this horrible pain. Doctors, after all, are use to seeing people die and must have some special way to deal with this type of pain. My colleague did not see a great deal of death in his specialty and therefore did not have an answer for his friend in need. He thought he might find the answer from someone like me who tends to see more death compared to other specialties. At first I didn't have an answer for him. We continued our discussion and in time I think we found one. It's called the presence of death and the absence of life.

On The Job & Off The Job

When I am on call as a Trauma Surgeon and a patient is brought into the Emergency Department (ED) there is a very good chance I do not know that person. I've never met that individual. I know nothing about their life. If the patient arrives DOA (dead on arrival) and I declare them dead that is, for me, the "presence of death". If a man brought into a ED arrives DOA and he turns out to be my brother, just as in the previous example, he will also be declared dead. Unlike the previous example this is a completely different experience. I will know this person and will have shared a great deal of life with them. For me this is called the "absence of life". The distinguishing feature between the two examples is how much a part of their life was a part of my life.

The Same Way Everyone Else Does

It is not easy to experience the death of another person but as long as it is the "presence of death" and does not occur too frequently we can train people to cope with it. What is difficult, if not impossible to prepare anyone for, is the pain that accompanies the "absence of life". Distinguishing these two types of loss is how doctors and nurses cope on the job. When it's someone we know, care about, and love, we're just like everyone else. Our grief is proportionate to our loss, and our loss is proportionate to how much they touched our lives. This is why there is more than one way to grieve and why there is no single answer to the question, "How do you deal with death?"

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Writing: The Creative Catalyst

Hooked On Writing

Several years ago I was bit by the writing bug. It began innocently enough as an exercise to solve a problem on which I was working. In time I bought a journal and started writing nearly everyday in it. It seemed some days I would stare at a blank page forever, but each day I eventually found something to write. I soon discovered I could pick just about any random thought out of my mind and begin writing about it. Within several sentences something amazing would happen. The random thought grew into an idea. The very act of writing somehow nurtured it along and allowed it develop roots and find a life of its own. It was not that each thought developed into the most profound idea. It was that each thought, through writing, developed into an idea. There is some amazing force attributable to the act of writing that is released in the mind which catalyzes the creative process. That is what got me hooked on writing, and like all pleasant habits I heard the call for more.

The Thrill of Blogging

Sooner or later if you write often and regular you begin to take yourself seriously, maybe too seriously. I'm no different. I believed what I wrote must not be kept from the public. My initial goal was to write a book but after several months, in a vain attempt, it became obvious that I bit off more than I could chew. I continued to write and focused it on the healthcare industry. With this focus came my first blog. What a thrill. Blogging opened up a whole new world to me. Since the invention of the Gutenberg press being published meant being approved by those who publish. Blogs changed all that. Blogs cannot be spiked. To traditionalists the idea that anyone can publish anything, at anytime, must seem abhorrent. Without publishers and editors to authorize and sanitize what gets published the playing field of ideas became wide open. The downside is that all of us, myself included, get to publish as much crap as our heart desires. The upside is no one has to read it unless of course they choose to read it. That is the tremendous benefit of blogs. We get access to the world of pure, unfiltered ideas previously only seen by editors. Knocking down the walls of editing and censorship opened up the flood of raw resources needed for further innovation and creativity. Those resources become the fresh, untouched material for new thoughts and of course more creative writing.

"Publish Post": The One Click That Takes The Most Courage

Writing forces us to organize our thoughts at a higher level. It gives order to an otherwise poorly organized or even unorganized group of random thoughts. With practice, order is created through our powers of observation and reasoning. Writing builds on that order by using our unique set of values, language, style and voice to further nurture those thoughts and ideas. In doing so ideas develop in ways not achievable if left unattended in our minds. Blogging has the potential to enhance our writing beyond even that. It is the act of publishing that does it.

Publishing what we write puts it all out there if we so choose. It is how we think and feel. It says something about who we are as individuals. It speaks with our voice about our values, beliefs, interests and passions. What we put out there is a view into our heart, our mind, and our soul.

Not a single person in the world may read what we wrote but then again they just might. Knowing there is a chance forces each of us to prepare our ideas for primetime. Each time we do this our ideas improve and so do we. And that is why it is so important. When we put that much of ourselves on the line like that it takes courage and at least for today each of us gets to live and feel better knowing, that in return, we gave it our all.