On Thursday, September 10th, 2015, I spoke to an enthusiastic audience of over 200 brought together by the Tapestry Foundation for Health Care in this season’s first Dialogue on Aging.
I talked about how we are co-authors of our own life stories, a new definition of health and the role of love in finding the ultimate meaning in our lives.
Though I don’t actually use notes while public speaking, here are my draft speaking notes:
Achieve Your Positive Potential at Any AgeDavidicus Wong, M.D.
Thank you to each of you who has taken precious time out of this day to be here with me. Thank you, MaryLou Harrigan, who on behalf of the Tapestry Foundation, invited me to share some of what I have learned from my family, friends and patients.
Together we weave the tapestry of our lives. It is our shared story and a work of art. We are the creators and the creation. We are given the raw materials and circumstances of our lives. As we live our lives and relate to one another, we build upon what others have built and experience a life intricately connected with the rest of the world. Together we weave a tapestry of inconceivable complexity and beauty that continues to exist beyond our individual lives. This is the art of living . . . a work of art.
This evening, I’ll talk about change, a cause of much fear, frustration, anger and grief; how it is an inescapable reality of life on earth and being human; and how it is seen as a source of suffering.
I’ll talk about happiness; how popular culture sells us an empty version of it; how our pursuit of it actually leads to greater unhappiness; and I’ll share the secrets of lasting happiness.
I’ll introduce you to a new way of thinking about your health; recognizing the limitations of standard definitions, and leading to a new approach to caring for yourself.
By the end of this evening, you’ll understand the meaning of life (at least my version) and rather than seeing yourself as another hapless and helpless victim of change, you will recognize yourself as an agent of positive change, embracing age – welcoming each and every new day and seizing the positive potential of your life.
THE STORIES OF OUR LIVES
I chose the specialty of Family Practice – or it chose me, I simply answered its call – when I fell in love with the stories shared by patients. As medical students, when we take a history, we learn about family relationships, the pivotal points in every life, the triumphs, the tragedies and the disasters; and ultimately, how each person made sense of the unfolding of their lives.
Most people have to rely on reality TV, soap operas and romance novels to be privy to the intimate details of other people’s life stories. With deep listening to these stories, we learn empathy. Understanding the suffering that others endure, we develop compassion.
In an English Literature course, my professor told us that a comedy typically ends with a marriage and a tragedy with a funeral. If this was the case with real life, every one of our lives is ultimately a tragedy, and indeed that’s how a lot of people see their lives: after a certain age – 40, 50 or 60 – it’s a downhill ride to senescence.
I soon recognized that the happiest of my patients told their life stories quite differently. They accepted the same illnesses, accidents and losses in life but also recognized with gratitude the gifts that they had received – aspects of their health that continued to thrive, good fortune that came when most needed, and most importantly, love and kindness shared – particularly from family and friends who had passed on.
If tomorrow you met a friend you had not seen since early childhood, how would you tell your life story? How you reflect upon the past – what you regret and what you appreciate; how you judge others and judge yourself – can impact your happiness in the present and how you continue to see and live your life. Is there another way to tell your story?
My aspiration is that by the end of this evening, you may receive an insight that may inspire you to rewrite your story for the better and empower you to be an agent of positive change in the writing of your life story from this moment forward.
MY PARENTS’ STORIES
My dad was born on Vancouver Island in Cumberland, near Courtney and Comox. When Cumberland had a coalmine, it was one of the largest Chinatowns on the West Coast. My dad lost his father in early childhood. His mother was left with 6 children to raise on her own. But my grandmother’s life was difficult from the start. She was sold into slavery at age 9 to a wealthy Chinese family. She worked throughout her childhood and was not taught English. She was married and had her first child at age 14. But my dad remembers her as being very good with her hands, a skilled chef and seamstress. She managed to make ends meet and raise each of her children to be independent.
My dad worked throughout his childhood to support his family, finished school, studied automechanics and worked at Vancouver Motors downtown. He saved enough to study science at UBC and Dentistry at McGill. When he talks about his childhood, he never complains about the prejudice he endured or the hardship his family suffered. He talks about wonderful life experiences, his lifelong friends and the kindness of so many people along the way.
My mom was born in the Strathcona neighbourhood of Vancouver. When my mom was 9 years old, she and her 7 siblings were orphaned. Her oldest sisters were teenagers and her youngest brother was still in diapers. They received no help from their aunts and uncles in town. To keep the family together, the oldest sisters decided that they would all work to raise the rest of the family until the youngest finished school. My mom always taught me the value of a good family in which each is responsible for one another, and 76 years later, my aunts, uncles and cousins continue to meet at our annual Boxing Day party.
My parents’ stories could have been told with sadness or bitterness but instead, they are stories of courage, resilience, gratitude and love.
My mother’s love for me was unconditional. She saw the best and expected the best of me. At first, I thought I had to be a top student and athlete to earn my parents’ love, but I eventually realized their love came with no conditions. I would always be loved and accepted just as I was.
My mom’s circle of concern continued to expand throughout her life. She had many friends and was involved in helping others in her United Church and community. She would go out of her way to make a positive difference in the lives of other people with not so random everyday acts of kindness.
When she died unexpectedly from a cardiac arrest 12 years ago, I was overwhelmed with grief, but over time I realized that my mother’s greatest gift was still with me. It was her love, compassion and kindness. I could never give back all the love that my mom had given me, but I was already giving it out and giving it forward. I realized that what I feel towards my own children is the same love my mother gave to me, and if I teach them well, that same love will be given to others beyond my own lifetime. My mother’s greatest legacy was of love. This legacy of love belongs to every one of us.
THE LOVE CYCLE
60% of our bodies is made up of water. It’s in each of our cells and in our circulation, but we don’t own that water. We consume it in our food and drink, we lose it through perspiration and elimination.
In school, we studied the Water Cycle. Water evaporates, condenses into clouds, precipitates as snow or rain, freezes, thaws, flows into rivers, lakes and oceans, continuously cycling around the globe. It belongs to no one. It belongs to everyone.
I see our selves as vessels of love and we are part of the Love Cycle. We receive love from many people throughout our lives – friends, family, teachers, coaches – and it comes in many forms including the random kindness of strangers. It doesn’t always come unconditionally – it comes in many imperfect and human forms because we are imperfect and human, but still we receive love from infinite sources.
Love is not a finite resource. It is in us to give, and the giving of love does not diminish us but connects us and makes us stronger.
DISCOVERING YOUR POTENTIAL IN LIFE
When we are young, our potentials may seem vast. Choosing a career can be a daunting task for the young. When I’m counseling my own children, my young patients and others at a crossroads in their studies or careers, I draw them the 4 intersecting circles Steven Covey conceived in his book The Eighth Habit: your passions, your talents, your values and the needs of the world. Where these 4 circles intersect is your calling.
Joseph Campbell said, “Follow your bliss”; heed the call and do what you were meant to do. When you listen to life and rise up to meet the challenge, you will find meaning and purpose.
Mahatma Gandhi said, “When what you say and what you do aligns with what you believe, there you will find happiness.”
But the call can change throughout our lives. We may receive the calling to a profession or mission in early adulthood or even in mid-life. Your calling at age 26 may be to be the best parent you can be to your child. When your career is established, your calling may be of generativity; What can you give forward to others and to the future?
Each day, there are opportunities to follow-through with an act of kindness, a word of encouragement, a thank you or a helping hand to someone in need. There is a positive potential to be realized in each day. We must see, feel and act.
YOUR POSITIVE POTENTIAL FOR HEALTH
How do you define health?
Many think of health as the absence of disease; indeed, healthcare is then seen as the treatment of illness or injury. I see that as a negative and reactive approach to wellbeing.
I see health as the dynamic balance of the important areas of your life (your body, your emotions, your environment, your family, your social relationships, your vocation, your mind and your spirit) and the achievement of your positive potential in each of those areas.
What that positive potential is begins with an understanding of your strengths and challenges in each area and guided by your own values, moves towards your own personal goals.
Considering your family relationships, you could ask, “What are my greatest goals and what is my ideal vision for my family?” We have to move beyond what is wrong to what can be great.
When I chaired the Ethical Resources Committee at Burnaby Hospital, I would ask the question, “Given the medical facts and the individual’s values, what is the right course of action? What is the positive potential of this patient’s situation?” What is the best we can do for this individual?
In the presence of chronic conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease, we can empower the individual with education and professional support so that they remain in control and experience the best quality of life.
HOW POPULAR CULTURE MISLEADS US
The happiness that popular culture promises us is ultimately unsatisfying and in fact leads to emptiness and greater unhappiness. The common belief is that we are happy when we get what we want; happiness comes from the satisfaction of our cravings (for material things, sensual pleasures, wealth, prestige, status, power, the latest fashion or the newest iPhone). But none of these things last and neither does the satisfaction we experience.
THE REALITY OF CHANGE
The human body at peace with itself is more precious than the rarest gem.
Cherish your body. It is yours this one time only. The human form is won with great difficulty. It is easy to lose.
All worldly things are brief like lightning in the sky. This life you must know as the tiny splash of a raindrop, a thing of beauty that disappears even as it comes into being.
Therefore set your aspiration and make use of every day and night to achieve it.
Change is the nature of all things. It is our very nature.
It is therefore futile to pursue and cling to that which does not last. Nothing lasts.
If your desire is to remain youthful for the rest of your life, you will ultimately be unhappy. If you seek to accumulate wealth and hold onto it forever, you will never be satisfied. If your goal is to be free of aging, illness, accident or loss, you will not find happiness. If you expect your relationships to stay the same your whole life, you will be disappointed.
In our youth, change means growth and we welcome adventure. In our early years, we are looking forward.
With age, change can be seen as a decline in our minds, in our bodies and in our relationships. We look back to what we have lost, and we look forward to further loss.
We forget that we are always growing and there remains the potential for positive change even in the face of difficult circumstances and personal loss.
This insight into the reality of change can heighten our appreciation for every moment and all of experience without aversion or clinging. We must appreciate what we have when we have it. Every gift that we hold (including those we love most) is not ours to hold forever. We must love and appreciate others while we can and let go when we need to.
COPING WITH CHANGE
A key psychological principle is the locus of control. If we see life as hostile, unpredictable and beyond our control, we become anxious, demoralized and hopeless. To prevent this spiral down with the stresses of life, we must recognize what we must accept and what we have the power to change. Accept what you cannot change, but accept responsibility to change what you can.
Become an Agent of Positive Change.
Though you, your world and everyone around you is in constant change, you can be dynamically responsive to change and seek out the positive potential of every moment. Our brains are naturally resistant to change, we quickly fall into habits of behaviour (e.g. eating and physical activity) and habits of thought (e.g. conceptualizing and relating). To be efficient frequently repeated thoughts and behaviours become entrenched with reinforced neural pathways.
But the science of neuroplasticity has taught us that our brains can change for the better, we can literally rewire our neural pathways and create new habits of thought and behaviour. This is how we adapt to our changing world.
But it requires effort and practice to reinforce new more positive habits and ways of thinking.
You can retell your life story in a more empowering way, embrace more fully the present moment and create a more positive future.
SO WHAT IS THE MEANING OF LIFE?
We discover ourselves and find meaning through the living of our lives. Through intention and action, we define who we are, and like rough stones in a tumbler, we rub against one another and through our relationships discover our truest selves.
A few years ago, my old friend, Steve told me that his little daughter, Vanessa wanted him to play with her when he was busy with yard work. He felt guilty when she asked, “Why did you and mom have me if you’re not going to play with me?”
Behind the sly daughter-father manipulation, there was ironic truth.
Why are we here? What is the point? Where is the meaning?
To be born; to learn and to forget; to grow and to age; to see, to want, to crave, to pursue, to gain and to lose all we gain; to care, to worry, to suffer, to regret and not to care; to grow ill and to die?
There is one answer for each question. Why are we here? What is the point? Where is the meaning?
To learn to love. To love and be loved.
But we are confused by love.
It can be an idea (that consumes our thoughts and preoccupies our minds); an emotion (that carries us away), or a spiritual experience (THE spiritual experience: the experience of the spirit and the discovery of your true self).
Love the idea or thought can be a concept, obsession or preoccupation. Everyone has a different idea of what love is and we forget that others, including those we love, may have vastly different ideas of just what love is, and our ideas about love can change with experience; they can expand or contract.
Love is also an emotion or a variety of emotions. It can be warm and fuzzy; faithful, full and abiding; passionate and possessive; wanting and craving.
But the big L Love is THE spiritual experience – the experience of the spirit; of our deeper, greater self; and of our deepest connection to another. This is the experience of your true self and the true self of another. This is the real thing. This is authentic love: metta, compassion, lovingkindness, agape.
This is why we are here.
This is the point of it all.
This is the meaning of life.
Without Love, we see ourselves as separate and competing in a win-lose world; what benefits others does not benefit you; to give to others takes away from you; to give strength to others diminishes you; we are always incomplete and searching.
Without Love, we pursue counterfeit happiness: the illusion of perfection, having everything we want; the delusion of permanence, the futile search for lasting satisfaction.
Without Love, all is ultimately empty and we remain alone.
With Love, all is clear. Everything makes sense.
We see ourselves clearly. We see others as they are. The world and life start to make sense.
Without judgment, with understanding and compassion, with complete acceptance, with hope but without expectation, we see beauty in another, in our lives and in ourselves.
We see our lives and every relationship as a gift.
Love creates a “new math”. You no longer need to keep track. The more you give, the more you get. The less you keep, the more you are free. You give more than you get and you don’t keep track. You win by giving all you have; the winner gives it all.
Being empty of self, you live fully.
At the end of each day and at the end of this life, you don’t want to regret not giving enough or loving enough. It is like leaving Denmark having spent your last Chrona because it is worth nothing when you leave.
Life is lived fully by loving without limit, by giving all you’ve got and holding nothing back.
THE EXPRESSION OF LOVE
To experience Love is to awaken; to express Love is to be fully alive.
We can express love as we serve others: through our intention to do good (and not to harm), to be open to the suffering and the needs of another, and to help where we can; to seize each and every opportunity to make a positive difference; to share our own gifts; to see beauty in another, and bring out the best.
Love lifts us up.
Our families can open us to connecting, letting go of self-interests and learning to love unconditionally. Loving my children has made me a better person. The love of my parents who loved all that I was brought out the best in me.
What I want most for those I love is that they each love themselves the way I love them: that they accept themselves and their lives just as they are, forgive themselves, let go of what they do not need, let go of what holds them back, see the beauty that I see in them, and share their gifts with the world.
Loving your life as it has unfolded is a challenge. There are events and experiences that are unpleasant, regretful and overwhelming: misfortune and trauma, negative situations, difficult relationships, harm we have experienced, harm that we have done, missed opportunities, words left unsaid and acts left undone.
We have all made mistakes, taken wrong turns and experience regret. We have all felt angry, selfish, cold or closed.
We experience aversion with strong emotions – fear, anger, despair – that are hard to accept, acknowledge and release. We may wish to relive happier times, erase negative experiences and correct our mistakes.
But the only way to live life fully is to live fully in the present – to acknowledge and accept all that has happened, all that we’ve done and all that we are – in order to be present to each arising moment.
To turn away, hide or fight against our nature and the reality of our world is to give greater power to the very things we push away. They continue to hold us back from fully loving, fully living and finding our true selves.
We can choose to let go, and we are freed to see more clearly: to see beauty, to love unconditionally our selves, others and our lives.
We are all human and imperfect but still deserving of love, beautiful and able to love.
What I can do in my thoughts, words and actions to benefit another – or to benefit the world – benefits me.
What I can do to nurture my soul nurtures the world.