Thursday, February 16, 2017

Choosing between fear and courage

In response to both cancer and terrorism, an individual has two basic choices: fear or courage.
In the short run, fear advantageously heightens a person’s senses, thus increasing vigilance along with the potential to improve the rapidity and quality of one’s response. Over the longer term, including fights against cancer and terrorism, fear’s disadvantages outweigh that advantage:
  • Fear loses its power over time, the altered condition becoming the new normal.
  • Life is inherently risky. No prophylactics exist to ensure that one will not develop cancer. Similarly, no guarantees exist to prevent one from becoming a victim in a terror attack. Indeed, counterterrorism authorities unanimously agree that there are too many potential targets to protect all of them.
  • Fear inherently degrades one’s quality of life.

Conversely, courage tempered by prudence (avoiding that which is rash) has only advantages:
  • Courage is a moral habit that develops and strengthens with practice.
  • Courageous living is essential for living abundantly.

President Trump’s policies and pronouncements about terrorism are a call to live fearfully. I, for one, refuse to live in fear, whether fear of terrorism or fear of cancer. I choose life. I choose to live courageously. What is your choice?

Monday, February 13, 2017


The Old and New Testaments both reflect widespread, theologically rooted belief in the idea that the sin is the cause of illness. For example, when Jesus heals a man who was born blind, some of the people in the crowd ask, “Who sinned, this man or his parents?” (John 9)
Who sinned and caused my cancer, my parents or I?
My parents were by no stretch of the imagination perfect. However, to posit that two of their five children would die of incurable cancers (one of my brothers died of colon cancer almost twenty years ago) because of egregious sins my parents committed is unreasonable. First, my parents – like most people – did not commit horrendous sins. Second, punishing children for sins committed by their parents is unjust. Old Testament declarations that the sins of the parents will affect their children make sense only in limited contexts, e.g., parents who pollute the earth invariably harm the lives of their progeny or pregnant women who drink alcoholic beverages will often cause detrimental consequences for their newborn.
I’m with Jesus: in general, parental sins do not cause illnesses in their children.
Similarly, an individual’s sins sometimes cause harm in that person’s life. Illustratively, cancers frequently occur in the lives of adults who knowingly work with asbestos without taking proper precautions and those who smoke in spite of the well documented link between tobacco and cancer. Individuals sin when they fail to practice reasonable safeguards in caring for their life.
However, such explicit links between sin and disease of any kind is the exception and not the norm. I tried to take care of my body. I ate a healthy diet, exercised regularly, and avoided known health hazards. Indeed, scientists do not know the cause or causes of multiple myeloma. Likewise, my brother who died of colon cancer had a healthy lifestyle and left behind a loving wife and two young children. His death punished them as much as it may have punished him.
Again, I’m with Jesus: in general, an individual’s sins do not cause illness in that person’s life.
Positing a link between sin and illness expresses a desire for justice, i.e., the sinner should be punished for wrongdoing. Life is not that simple. Indeed, life frequently appears to be unfair. Good people suffer and die unjustly. Evil doers enjoy wealth, power, and privilege.
The cosmos’ trajectory appears to arc toward justice, but that does not mean that every individual experiences justice in his or her life. One of my seminary professors told me that Christians must believe in life after death because only then do all receive justice.

Again, I’m with Jesus: the cosmos functions on a paradigm of love rather than justice. Jesus healed a few; the vast contemporaneous multitude of the world’s sick, lame, blind, and hungry lived and died in misery. God calls us to love those whose lives intersect with ours. The larger questions of justice for all, even of love for all, remain mysteries best left to God.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Respite or reprieve?

The pace of executive orders and other changes issued by the Trump White House appears to have slowed.
Is this a respite or reprieve?
According to senior Trump administration officials, the administration has hundreds of draft executive orders ready to be finalized and signed. The slower pace at which Trump is signing these orders may optimally reflect President Trump’s belated recognition of the desirability of staffing the draft order through the departments and agencies that will be responsible for implementation. For example, the new Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, retired Marine General John Kelly, has acknowledged that the Trump administration should have better staffed the executive order on immigration before issuing it. If so, this may represent the beginning of a positive learning curve for the Trump administration.
Furthermore, President Trump is no longer assured of being center stage in the daily news, nudged (or shoved, depending upon one’s perspective) aside by other people and events, e.g., Super Bowl LI.
Finally, President Trump is encountering the limits of presidential power. He has no direct control over the judiciary, as evidenced by a federal district judge blocking implementation of his immigration ban. He is discovering that his words matter. Unlike in business, where inflammatory rhetoric, even if it is false, may help the speaker achieve a negotiating advantage, in politics and foreign affairs inflammatory rhetoric – especially if false – may exacerbate a bad situation, provide opponents irrefutable ammunition, or otherwise work to the speaker’s disadvantage.

A respite from the flurry of Trump’s initial presidential actions is welcome; a reprieve would be a sign of hope that the chaos, dishonesty, and incendiary efforts intended to cause conflict are ending, moving the US and the world away from potential catastrophes that an unreformed Trump might cause.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Frustrated yet thankful

In the middle of September last year, I spent a week in the hospital, my body ravaged by the effects of multiple myeloma that had gone undiagnosed for months. Three months of chemotherapy followed.
During those three months, my oncologist encouraged me to exercise, so as to maintain my strength. My neurosurgeon, however, encouraged me to spend my days lying in bed. He was afraid that some unexpected movement my result in my becoming a paraplegic because of the damage that the cancer had done to my spine. The two physicians never gave me a mutually agreed recommendation on exercising. So, I erred on the side of caution, exercising some while spending considerable time sitting on lying down. This was easier than it might sound because the multiple myeloma, hospitalization, and chemotherapy combined to leave me in a rather weakened, exhausted condition. During those months, I lost about twenty pounds.
In December, my cancer went into remission. Kyphoplasty ended immediate concerns about becoming a paraplegic. All obstacles to exercise were removed.
The slow pace of regaining strength, mobility, and endurance has surprised and frustrated me.
In reflecting on that slow pace, and in discussing it with my physicians, I have identified several mitigating factors that help to explain the pace. First, I am in the middle of my seventh decade and the body regains what it has lost more slowly as one ages. Second, I am still taking eight different drugs daily, some of which limit my energy and increase my feelings of tiredness. Third, I do not fully appreciate just how sick I was in September and how long recovery typically requires.
On the other hand, I am regaining strength, mobility, and endurance even if it is at much slower pace than I think I should.
Thus, I have a choice. Will I be frustrated or will I be thankful? Is my incentive to continue exercising, taking the medicines designed to maximize the length of my remission, and sustaining other actions intended to promote my health and well-being found in feeling frustrated, thankful, or some combination of both?
I suspect that many other people find themselves facing similar choices, e.g., the person who wishes to lose weight but finds losing the pounds agonizingly slow or the person who desires to learn a new skill more time consuming and difficult than anticipated.
No one combination of frustration and thankfulness best suits everyone. Instead, each individual must find the best balance for her or him. Persons who would encourage that individual will maximize their support for that individual when they identify that balance and then offer both negative and positive encouragement as appropriate.
This insight has wider applicability.
Recently, I have read a couple of books about families that moved to France from the US. The authors contrasted American and French schools. American schools and youth organizations stereotypically emphasize praising everyone. For example, every child who participates in some sports receives a trophy simply for participating. Universal praise is intended to strengthen weak egos and enhance self-image. In France, teachers and other adults who work with children stereotypically offer little or no praise. Instead, these leaders provide what is intended to be constructive criticism, comments about how the child or youth might improve performance. The French contend that universal praise is meaningless and helps to prevent individuals from achieving peak results.
Probably, the optimal approach tailors positive and negative feedback to the particular character of each child or youth, offering a mixture of both positive and negative comments. The same is true of leading and managing (cf. The One Minute Manager by Kenneth Blanchard and Spencer Johnson).