Emotions Relationships

Soul Friends – The Difference is Depth

My friend, Stan told me that when we met – in Mr. Fullerton’s grade 9 English class – and became close friends, he found that we talked about things at a level and depth that was totally new to him. 

We didn’t just talk about homework, movies, music and which girls we thought were hot. We talked about our emotions – the roller coaster ride of adolescence, the ever evolving tensions in our family relationships . . . and our fears.

We talked about our dreams – our grand ambitions to grow up and take over the world (not in a fiendish megalomaniacal villainous way but in a positive influential fashion). We imagined ourselves as great novelists, screenwriters or scientists.

We continued an ongoing dialogue on how we each saw the big picture – the meaning of life. Who is God? How is he manifest in our lives? What happens after this life? Where do we find meaning?

Having this depth of relating expanded our own self- and mutual-awareness and our adolescent minds. It transformed how we related to others. Friends aren’t just people who share common interests, exchange favours and like to hang out together.

Over time, good friends create a deeper emotional and spiritual connection that can transcend the inevitable changes of life, our marriages, moving away, career and study. Indeed, that connection allows us to transcend our separate selves and our own self-interests.

That quality is absent in many other friendships, most notably in boys and young men. Many young men are not so in touch with their own feelings and seldom are able to discuss them with even their best friends. Even fewer step back and look at the big picture and reflect on their most important relationships against the backdrop of their lives so far.

When I had become good friends with a med school classmate who was four years older than me, he told me that in all his friendships, he had never talked about how he felt in this way. I couldn’t imagine having good friends with whom I didn’t.

Growth Relationships

My Lifelong Friends

A number of years ago – long after we had become adults, my childhood friend, Stan pointed out a salient feature of our friendship – how to him it was different from any other. I didn’t realize ’til then that in my closest friendships, there was a quality absent from how most guys relate to one another.

When I got married and I introduced my oldest friend, Stew to family, some were surprised that we had maintained a close friendship over so many years – since kindergarten. It didn’t seem strange to me. I thought I was just lucky to have a friend for life.

As a young adult, I wondered why my own siblings didn’t have friendships like these that began in elementary school and continued without wavering to the present. They each had many friends from every stage of their lives: soccer friends, university friends, med school friends, but with each major change in their lives, they would drift apart and their best friends changed.

I wasn’t really comparing myself to them. Well, maybe – as it usually is with siblings – I was, but I envied their more outgoing natures and ability to make new friends quickly. I thought that my shyness was the difference and that when I finally found great friends, I stuck with them.

Next: The Difference is Depth.

Compassion Growth Happiness Love Relationships

Healthy Friendships: The Value of Soul Friends

What are the qualities of a healthy friendship? I need only think of the special friends who have enriched my life. I call them my soul friends. We are kindred spirits, and though we may have different backgrounds and jobs, we share core beliefs about what is good and a deep abiding love for one another.

Our relationships are reciprocal, each gives and takes, and each listens. With my best friends, I don’t even keep track of who gives more. My friend, Steve and I each grab for the dinner bill. Each of us feels we are getting the better deal and want to give more in return. It feels better than fair.

Soul friends know you best; they see deeply into your spirit. They recognize the best in you, and they bring it out. My friend, Stan reminds me of my dreams and challenges me to live them.

With best friends, you can pick up where you left off even if you haven’t talked for months. In spite of the unpredictable changes in our lives and our preoccupation with family and work, I never grow apart from my childhood friends, Stew, Peter, Ron and Mike.

Best friends see all of you – including you at your worst moments. They accept and love you anyway.

They will tell you the truth even if you don’t like it. They will organize an intervention if you’re out of line, destroying yourself or your life.

Appreciate and nurture your soul friends. They are the rare and precious diamonds through which unconditional love shines. They bring out the brilliance, beauty and meaning in your life.

Happiness Healthy Living Relationships

How Your Friends Affect Your Health

When you think about the key factors to good health, what comes to mind? Obviously, healthy habits, good genes and luck. How about your relationships?

And when you think about your most important relationships, you may consider first your parents, partner, siblings or children. What about your friends?

Of course, there are many types of friendships. Not all Facebook friends are equal. They could be classmates, neighbours, party friends, drinking buddies, bowling friends, fishing pals, running partners or coworkers. With each you may share some common interests and varying degrees of connectedness and intimacy.

Through the stories shared by my patients, I see the impact of unhealthy friends. Many have described one-sided relationships where they have adopted the role of the giver or the listener. When my patients need someone to talk to, they come to me because their friends do not reciprocate.

Some friends perpetuate unhealthy behaviour. You may share “good times” such as partying and drinking together, and together you “normalize” drug or alcohol abuse. Every week, I surprise young men and women when I inform them that three standard alcoholic drinks (a regular glass of wine, a shot of spirits, or a can of beer) is the healthy single day limit for a man’s liver while 2 drinks is the limit for a woman. Exceeding that on the weekend with friends officially makes them “binge drinkers.”

Other unhealthy friends can encourage you to spend beyond your means – not just on food and drink but on entertainment and the luxury items that you neither need or can afford. Your friends may also lead you to believe that a growing credit card debt is normal and reasonable.

Your friends shape your beliefs. They can perpetuate narrow-mindedness, racism, prejudice and sexism.

Next: So what are the qualities of a healthy friendship?

Compassion Forgiveness Grace Love Parenting patient-doctor relationship Relationships

Accepting Love in Your Life

Love comes in many forms – as many as the number of humans that have ever lived.

Agape – or unconditional love – is an ideal form of love. It is the perfect, all forgiving love of parents for their children. But even the most devoted mother or father falls short of perfection.

We may search our whole lives for the perfect soul mate – one whom we love without judgment or reservation, one who loves us the same perfect way, but we will never find that perfection because we are each human.

We must accept and appreciate love just as we have received it in all its human imperfection.

It is through us that God’s love is received . . . and expressed. It is in our lives, through our actions, in our words and in our relationships that divine love is manifest. But, of course, we are human – imperfect, frail and fallible. We do not see clearly – our selves or others. We love imperfectly and we do not fully appreciate the love that we receive.

But that is how we experience love – divine love, unconditional love, compassion and grace – filtered by the passions and hunger of our bodies, clouded by our limited minds and narrowed by our little selves.

We must not only love the ones we’re with. We must accept the love we have been given.

This morning, my thoughts began with a prayer of appreciation for God’s love in my life – in the past and in the present, as I have received it, partly through the grace of the events and circumstances of my life and the gifts I have received but primarily through my important relationships.

I am thankful for love – perfect and unconditional – as manifest and expressed in my imperfect relationships. I accept and appreciate that love as expressed by my wife in our long relationship, in her concern and care for me, our home and our children. I appreciate the love of each of my children, the experiences we have shared as they have grown, as I have grown with them and we have all learned, in our shared adventures, challenges and memories, in the rituals and routine of our everyday lives that seem endless but really are not. These moments are fleeting and precious.

I appreciate divine love through my relationships with my parents, each expressing love in our own ways, with my sister and with my brother.

I am thankful for the love received and expressed in my deepest friendships. I am grateful for the gift of my work – and the opportunity to express unconditional love in the care of my patients.

Compassion Forgiveness Grace Love Relationships

To Love and Be Loved – the Point of It All

June 18th is my mother’s birthday. When I think of her, I remember her love. My parents put a lot of thought into our names. Mom told me the meaning of my name was beloved as David was loved by God.

Love is central to our lives. It is the purpose, passion and meaning of life. To love and be loved is the point of it all.

Yet love, so important and central to our lives, is a complex experience and a confusing word. We mean different things and misunderstand each other when we say, “I love you.”

Our personal journeys and growth in love may begin with attraction emotional and physical but it must grow beyond this in order to last. It is warmth and affection, compassion and care. Many reserve their love for one soul mate. For others, love is expressed as compassion to many.

I see love as a potential spiritual experience – to see and be seen as we really are – beyond what we each appear to be. To love is to recognize the divine in another person, and with that recognition, dedication, compassion and caring flow naturally. To be loved this way is like coming home, finding your authentic self and discovering that you are not alone.

Love takes us deeper into the self yet goes beyond self. It penetrates to the depths of the soul. We love the unique expression of the divine in the other, the other is no longer separate from us, and once that connection between you is experienced there can be no separation.

Life is all about relationships, and love is the point of it all. Life is imperfect, we are all flawed, life is unpredictable, and we all make mistakes. We waste our time and energy, we stray from our paths, and we harm each other. Yet love makes it worthwhile and allows us to forgive others and ourselves.

At the end of our lives, relationships matter most, and what lasts is love. All I have left from my mother is love but that love would just be a memory if I didn’t continue to share that love – to express it in thoughts, words and actions, to do more than is required, to do what I am moved to do.

The greatest potential in our lives lies in our capacity for love – to love and to accept it. What holds us back?

We fear rejection, exposure and the vulnerability of expressing our deepest feelings. We fear potential loss. Having opened up and sharing joy, will we lose it again? Can we save ourselves from future misery by keeping the door closed? By holding our cards close to our heart and never showing our hand, will we win or will the loss of not fully loving or accepting love make us all losers in the end? With the deeper love is the grief greater – or do we die a thousand smaller deaths, a little at a time with love unrealized?

We can express our love in many ways. In daily acts of caring, parents prepare their children for school, make their breakfasts and pack their lunches. We express love and appreciation with kind words, thank yous and doing our share to make living together more pleasant, picking up after ourselves and one another.

We express love by showing concern. To ask and listen when someone needs help or comfort

When I recently attended a conference, my 10-year-old daughter sent me her picture by email with a message that she missed me. She packed a teddy bear in my bag. When I tuck her in at bedtime, I kiss her on the cheek and say, “I love you,” and she answers, “I love you.”

My teenaged sons are now more reserved. I listen for the positive inflection in a grunt, and I take their share of the housework – clearing the table, unloading the dishwasher and helping with laundry and lawn – as their expressions of love.

Our best friends can love us the best. We can have many kinds of friends, but it is in our deepest, longest friendships that we experience great love. It is expressed in empathy, being on your side but telling you the truth when you need to hear it, always ready to drop everything to help, always offering unconditional positive regard with our aging bodies and changing circumstances. One of my best friends, not knowing if he was going to make it through major surgery the next day, called me to say, “I love you, man.” We cannot open ourselves in this way to many people, but just one great friend can make life more livable.

Love gives meaning, purpose and passion to our lives. In our minds, we organize our lives with an evolving story. Love is the point of our stories.

At the end of life when you ask yourself, “Have I loved enough?”, what will be your answer. We ought to ask ourselves this question often throughout our lives so that we can do what we should while we can.

My childhood friend, Stan once asked me, “If you knew tomorrow you weren’t going to see someone ever again, what would you say and do today?”

So what are you going to do today?

Compassion Emotions Empathy Parenting patient-doctor relationship Relationships Uncategorized

Listening Deeper for Values

In my last post, I described an exercise in deep listening that I found transformative as both storyteller and listener. We usually listen – if we’re listening at all – to facts. If we attend a little deeper, we listen for feelings.

The third mode of listening – attending to the other’s values – was the most profound aspect of our exercise. These values might include your core beliefs about yourself, the world and others; what you care deeply about, how you find meaning, and what a situation represents to you.

Most of this is implicit. We have to read between the lines and listen behind the words we here. Rather than offering a definitive statement, the values listener may instead ask deeper questions to get at the core values.

But to accurately understand another’s values and reflect them back is the most powerful way of listening. It brings both listener and speaker to a deeper level of relating and transforms everyday listening to deep listening.

As a listener reflecting back to another the values implicit in expressed words, you can provide the speaker with deep personal insights. You may bring to awareness subconscious beliefs and motivations.

Today, attend to your conversations. How deeply have you been listening? What are the feelings and values you hear in another’s words?

How does the experience of deep listening change you as a listener? How does it feel to be listened to and understood? How can deep listening transform your relationships?

Compassion Empathy Parenting patient-doctor relationship Relationships

Are You Listening Deeply?

We all seek to be understood, but sometimes we can be so intent on expressing our own points of view that we stop listening ourselves.

Last weekend, as part of the last module in a medical leadership course, I participated in a profound exercise with three other family physicians. We each took turns telling a brief story about a time when we were in conflict, personal or professional.

The three others took on the roles of listeners. One was to listen for facts, the second for feelings and the third for values. At the end of the story, each of the listeners reported back what they had heard from their assigned perspectives.

Listening to the facts seemed easy enough. After all, we do this every day in the clinic. Doctors are known for transcribing detailed notes on the history as explained by the patient, and to show that we’re really listening, we’ll ask questions to hone out even more detail.

Listening for feelings also came quite naturally. Physicians are taught early in family practice to attend to patients’ personal experience of illness. Medical students around the world are taught patient-centred interviewing with the acronym, FIFE (feelings, ideas, functioning and expectations).

In an empathy course I took in my first year of medical school, I learned the power of accurately reflecting back a person’s feelings. To feel understood can be the first step towards the relief of suffering.

This was useful in relating better to my patients. Later, it was helpful as a parent. When one of my children was upset, I would be able to calm them by accurately acknowledging the feelings they were experiencing and understanding their point of view.

If you have worked with the public, you already know that you cannot get an irate customer to calm down by telling him to. You must first acknowledge his point of view and his feelings.

Though the facts of the story are clearly explicit. Feelings may not be. Though we may talk specifically about feelings, sometimes they may be better reflected in tone of voice and nonverbal expressions.

Sometimes as listeners we have to be tentative in our reflections of emotion. We may not have it right; we may project on the other our own emotions or how we might have responded to the same situation. Yet we are open to correction and therefore better understanding.

Next: Listening between the words for values.

Healthy Living

The Power (and Pitfalls) of Napping

After reading my recent column on healthy sleep, a helpful reader wrote to remind me to mention the restorative power of the daytime nap.

The siesta is more common closer to the equator though many Canadians find that a midday nap gives them the energy to get through the rest of each day. Many of us though don’t have the luxury to sleep during the day.

That doesn’t mean involuntary napping doesn’t happen. Anyone who is sleep-deprived – or suffers from a sleep disorder such as obstructive sleep apnea – may have such severe daytime sleepiness that they can easily nod off when they should be alert.

The student who has stayed up studying past midnight may take an involuntary nap during a lecture. They may not even notice they have fallen asleep until they see their notes trail off the page.

The doctor who has stayed up all night for a delivery may struggle to stay awake at a school concert. My rule of thumb for a school performance is this. If I’m feeling refreshed at the end of the show, I must have fallen asleep.

The worst time to nap is when your hands are on the wheel of an automobile. So if you are feeling sleepy, stay out of the driver’s seat. You may be as dangerous as a drunk driver.

If it takes less than 5 minutes for you to fall asleep during the day, you may be suffering from a sleep deficit, and the need for a nap is your body and brain telling you that you need more sleep. The nap is just a short-term solution if you continue the habit of sleeping too late or waking up too early.

If you need a nap, it’s best to do so early in the day – either the morning or in the early afternoon. Naps taken later in the day can perpetuate a bad sleep-wake cycle by making it harder for you to fall asleep at your appropriate bedtime.

As our brains and bodies cycle through natural rhythms throughout the day, we need a break – though not necessarily a nap – every 2 hours or so. When you feel restless or a little unfocussed during the midmorning or midafternoon, you may want to try a change of pace. Take up a different activity, take a short walk, stretch, meditate or listen to some music. If you’re not sleep-deprived, you should feel refreshed – without the need for a nap.

If you are suffering from persistent or severe daytime sleepiness, see your doctor. You may need further testing to rule out a sleep disorder, such as obstructive sleep apnea, or a medical problem affecting the quality of your sleep.

A warning for students: I didn’t realize – until I returned to the lecture hall on the stage rather than in the audience – that I could see every face in the hall, including the one who was nodding off.