Categories
Compassion Coping with Loss Love

Remembering Mom

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Today is my personal annual day of grief. It is the 17th anniversary of my mother’s passing. On that worst day of my life, she died unexpectedly while doing an exercise class with her friends at the Confederation Seniors Centre.

In a moment, she went from being active and feeling well to unconscious. She received immediate CPR. The paramedic’s report read PEA – pulseless electrical activity. This would suggest that she had a massive heart attack – perhaps due to the sudden thrombotic occlusion of a main coronary artery.

There was absolutely no warning.

She was not fortunate enough to have a gradual narrowing of a coronary blood vessel that would eventually have presented with the symptoms of angina – chest pain with physical activity. That is the usual signal for physicians to request exercise tests and angiograms, allowing us to intervene with bypass surgery or angioplasty.

In fact, she lived an extremely healthy lifestyle and attended to her two atherosclerotic risk factors, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. She felt well. Her memory remained sharp.

She was only 72 (but looked twenty years younger). Looking at this photo taken a month or so before she died, she looked younger than I do now.

Having lost her parents by age 9, she was always health conscious.

She was also socially conscious. She always put the needs of others above her own. She looked after her family, and also her friends, family and community. Her concerns extended to the whole world.

If she were alive today, the sickness and grief that is now pandemic would have affected her deeply.

But she would not be overwhelmed. She had a great heart. She would have turned her fears and sadness into generous action.

That is what she did as a child with her siblings to survive when their parents had died. That is what she always did for us as we grew up. That was her way until the day she died.

My mother is the single most important influence on my life. As human and imperfect as I am, the best of me is because of my mother – who she was, how she lived her life and how she loved.

Since she died, I often wondered how much better our lives would have been if she had not died when she did – my children were still in elementary school and aged 10, 8 and 4.

How many more family dinners would we have shared? Just a few weeks before she died, my mom had made us a wonderful Easter dinner.

She would have come to all of my daughter’s dance, piano and violin performances, my children’s award ceremonies and all of their graduations. She would have been so happy to see them grow up and so proud of the young adults they have become. How many more small and great acts of kindness would they have seen?

She would have been to them – as she was to me – the embodiment of unconditional, limitless and active love; one who sees the best in you and inspires you to be your best; one who gives more than she gets; one who always does the right thing even when no one else is watching.

I have come to realize how lucky I was to have her as my mom in my life even if not forever. Few people even meet one person who loves so much and lives a life of unquestionable integrity.

My mother set the standard of behaviour and caring to which I aspire.

Her legacy is the love that remains in her children and grandchildren to actively give as much as we can to others throughout our lives.

Categories
Compassion Coping with Loss Relationships

Remembering and Honouring Our Mothers

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Visiting the cemetery each week, reminds me of what matters most in life.

When we remember whom we have loved and lost, and recognize that all lives – even our own – will someday come to an end, the multitude of tasks that consume our days and the real and imagined dramas that engage our emotions are revealed as distractions from the marrow and meaning of life.

This time of the year has become bittersweet for myself and many others.

I remember my own mother who died suddenly in 2003, and I remember my patients who are mothers: young mothers fully engaged in the busiest, most stressful times of their lives looking after every detail of their infants’ and young children’s wellbeing; mothers of teens and young adults who will never stop giving and worrying about their children; and mothers with critical health conditions and whose remaining time with their families is painfully precious.

My mom was uniquely ethical and generous. She always did what she believed to be right and just, and she gave more than she got.

But when we think about it, giving more than you get is part of the lengthy job description of every mother. In spite of some progress in gender equality, mothers today still take on more than their share of maintaining the home and caring for their children.

Children can never pay back their mothers for the selfless care that began nine months before their births, continued through uncounted sleepless nights during infancy, a lifetime of meals prepared, and clothing purchased, picked up and laundered.

I appreciated how my mother loved and accepted me just as I was. She expected from her children a high standard of behaviour, but forgave us when we faltered. We didn’t have to be perfect to be loved. She saw the best in us and nurtured our potentials.

This day, let us remember and honour all mothers.

At my mother’s resting place, my sister and I chose these words, “Her legacy of love endures.” We honour our mother by giving forward to all whom we can touch with our lives, the love she gave to us and many others.

When you are being hard on yourself, judging yourself too harshly, beating yourself up for your failings or just think you’re not good enough, give to yourself what you need the most – a good dose of motherly self-compassion. Remember you were loved just the way you are and with the eyes of a good mother, you are beautiful.

Honour your mother by being the best version of yourself – and loving others as she has loved you.

Categories
Christmas Compassion Coping with Loss Happiness

HOW to Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas

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Since its debut in 1944, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” has been a bittersweet favourite of the holiday season. In the movie, Meet Me in St. Louis, Judy Garland sang it to cheer up Maureen O’Brien before the family’s plan to move to a new town.

The song evokes the mixture of emotions the holidays bring.

But how can we each find more happiness and peace in a season of stress and sometimes sadness?

1. Manage your expectations. As a kid with very specific requests for Santa, I made myself miserable on at least a few Christmases past when I didn’t get exactly what I wanted.

I soon learned that my parents and Santa didn’t always give us what we want but they knew what we really needed.

I eventually learned that the key to enjoying holidays with the people I loved was to appreciate their presence and our relationships. Presents – and the thought and care they represent – are just reflections of love.

2. Look for the light. Mankind has survived (so far) because of our brain’s negativity bias. Picking out what’s odd, wrong or dangerous, helped our ancestors survive.

But our brains still maintain this Negativity Bias. As neuropsychologist, Rick Hanson has said, our brains are Velcro for the negative and Teflon for the positive.

The Negativity Bias helps us avoid danger but makes us miserable. We emphasize what’s wrong with our lives (and other people) and dismiss the positive. Not only do we see the cup half full but we come across too critical of others.

One key to happier relationships is to look for the positive in each other and express our appreciation. We need to look for and express at least five positives for each negative just to come out even.

If we all remembered this, we’d think twice before making another negative comment.

Look for the best in your circumstances and the people around you. These include the qualities and kindnesses we take for granted – the very things we may miss looking back from the future. Are we missing out on enjoying the “good old days” while they’re still here?

The holidays are an opportunity to express our appreciation for those who make a difference in our lives. Putting into words the affection we feel may be the best gifts.

3. Make allowance for the expected challenges of the season. There will be heavy traffic, little parking, long lineups, items out of stock and lots of Christmas music. We are part of the traffic and the crowds; we’re all in this together. Strike up a friendly conversation with those in line with you. Bring your own playlist and sing along while you wait in traffic.

4. Remember the three potential solutions to a challenging situation: leave it, change it or reframe it.

No one deserves abusive relationships but many need help to get away safely.

Assuming there is no abuse, before an argument has you walking out of a family dinner, might you be able to transform the situation through new ways of relating?

Wrapping and framing make a world of a difference. A good frame and border can bring out the best in a painting. Pretty wrapping can make a gift all the more special.

The most challenging people come from a place of suffering: their home. The rest of their family suffer. They have to live with themselves 24/7.

5. Define your mission.

During the holidays, we can get distracted by the busyness, mixed emotions and difficult relationships. Some of us are missing loved ones no longer with us; I miss my mother most at this time.

Some of us have no one with whom to spend the holidays. Remember them and reach out with compassion where you can.

What is your personal mission for the holidays? Getting everything done and avoid going (deeper) into debt? Just surviving? Avoiding recurring family arguments?

My wish for you this holiday season is health and happiness. May we appreciate our imperfect but lovable human selves, fully present to one another as we celebrate our connections.

Accept the unique and precious gift of this season though at first it may seem routine. Our loved ones’ most irritating quirks are the qualities we may miss when they are no longer in our lives. Love them today.

Dr. Davidicus Wong is a family physician. His Healthwise Column appears regularly in this paper. For more on achieving your positive potential in life, read his blog at davidicuswong.wordpress.com.

Categories
Caregiving Compassion Coping with Loss Forgiveness Friendship Letting Go Love Relationships

Live with the end in mind

Nitobe Memorial Garden, UBC (Davidicus Wong)

Mindfulness of death is a Buddhist practice that informs more meaningful living.

If anything can happen anytime and if your next breath was your last breath, you would pay attention to the quality of each remaining moment of your life – every sensation, thought, word and action.

If this was your last week or today was your last day, what would you do differently?

You may update your facebook . . . or you might not.

Would you spend more time on social media, go shopping one last time, go to your favourite restaurant and eat all you can? Would you reflect on your life in retrospect, recognize what really matters and spend your remaining time there?

If you had one last chance to talk to the people you love, what would you say?

Dr. Ira Byock, a palliative care physician wrote in his book, “The Four Things That Matter Most” that those four things are what we need to say to our loved ones before we part: “Please forgive me,” “I forgive you,” “Thank you,” and “I love you.”

We are all human and imperfect. We hurt the people we love, and they hurt us. We take one another for granted. We don’t always speak or act in loving ways.

If we knew our time together was limited, we might be kinder, more patient and loving. The truth is our lives are indeed limited, and few of us knows how much time we have left. In fact, the only ones who know this have been diagnosed with a terminal condition.

My mother died suddenly in April 13 years ago.

I was fortunate that my profession had taught me how precious life was and that I was able to give back to my mom the love that she gave me. Yet I have often thought of how her kind and generous presence would have enriched my life and those of my children if she was still here.

When grieving, I recalled every word from those who offered comfort. One patient said that to die suddenly is a good way to go. Ten years later, that patient would die from end-stage congestive heart failure. Without warning or in palliative care: neither is easy for loved ones.

Last year, my dear aunt passed away in palliative care at St. Michael’s Hospice. She was surrounded by her loving family, and we all had the opportunity to express our love and gratitude for all that she had done for each of us.

Palliative care focuses on the comfort of the patient suffering from a life-limiting condition. The aim is the best possible quality of life even in the final stages of illness.

It takes a team to attend not only to the physical aspects of care but just as importantly the psychological and spiritual. Patients with their families and friends are supported by a team that includes nurses, doctors and volunteers.

Since 1986, the Burnaby Hospice Society has provided trained volunteers to offer emotional and practical support at home, in hospitals and in long term care facilities to those with life-threatening illnesses and their families. They also offer free grief counseling to family members.

On Sunday, May 1st, the Burnaby Hospice Society will be hosting the 2016 Hike for Hospice at Central Park to raise money for these services. The cost is $25/person (children under 12 are free). For more information, see their website at burnabyhospice.org.

Though we cannot predict how our lives will unfold, we can live with the end in mind. We can invest in our most important relationships with the gift of each day and each moment together. We can stop wasting our time, doing things that don’t matter, holding grudges or putting ourselves before others. In the end, what can we hold on to?

We can say what needs to be said. We can use each moment more mindfully. We can express all the love we have in our hearts because it’s only worth something when we give it away. We can’t take it with us.

Davidicus Wong is a family physician and his Healthwise columns appear regularly in the Burnaby Now, Vancouver Courier, Royal City Record and Richmond News.

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Nitobe Memorial Garden, UBC (Davidicus Wong)
Categories
Compassion Coping with Loss Empathy Forgiveness Friendship Grace Growth Happiness Letting Go Love

The gifts that give back

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7 Mantras (Davidicus Wong)

At one time or another, we all think about ourselves when we give to others.

That’s perfectly fine when your gift is a shared experience: a nice meal, a concert or a movie. You’re celebrating your relationship and saying “I love you so much that I want to enjoy some special time together.”

Some gifts are thinly veiled gifts to your self. Examples among spouses abound. Consider the husband who buys a big screen TV for his wife a week before Valentine’s so that they can enjoy watching the Super Bowl together. Have you ever received a gift that someone else uses more than you?

When I was 14, I gave my brother a record album that I liked myself. He immediately noted that I would be enjoying the music as much as he so I exchanged it for something he really liked (that I couldn’t use).

There are three virtues that I call “double blessing”: forgiveness, gratitude and generosity. They are two-way gifts – gifts that give back. They benefit the giver as well as the receiver. They strengthen our relationships, and they nourish our souls.

Forgiving

Shakespeare said it best in The Merchant of Venice:

The quality of mercy is not strained.

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

Upon the place beneath; it is twice blest;

It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.

Sometimes we are loath to forgive someone who has hurt us. It is especially difficult if that person’s actions have caused great suffering, were done with ill intent and with no remorse.

To forgive may feel like you’re letting the other off the hook, giving something up or diminishing yourself, but what you give up and lighten may be a load that has been weighing you down and holding you back.

If you’ve travelled by plane recently, you’ve noticed that most passengers are maximizing their carry on luggage, stuffing them under seats and overhead. This makes for an even more uncomfortable flight for themselves and their neighbours.

We weigh ourselves down by carrying into each new day the baggage of our past: resentments, prejudices, insults and slights. They hold us back from stepping lightly, moving forward and welcoming new experiences.

Forgiveness isn’t so much letting someone else off the hook as it is unhooking you from the load you’ve been towing. You are the one who is freed.

Appreciation

I taught my children that two of the most important prayers are those of gratitude at the dawn of each day and at dusk. When we frame the day counting our blessings, we nurture both optimism and happiness. We greet a new day with a cup half full and go to bed, with a cup overflowing.

But we can do much more than just counting our blessings and acknowledging the gifts of the day. We can strengthen our relationships and spread happiness by thanking those who have helped us.

We all need to feel appreciated and to know that we make a difference to the people around us. If someone has touched you and made your life better, thank them. Don’t take anyone for granted. Don’t miss a day’s opportunities to express appreciation and to make a difference. All is fleeting.

Generosity

Each day you can see people in need, and you can help in ways big and small.

You don’t have to be rich to enrich your own day and make a positive difference. You can make someone’s day with an act of kindness, a sincere complement, a helping hand, encouragement and appreciation.

When we give freely and without expectation, we are nurturing our own capacity for unconditional love. We are each beneficiaries of kindness and love from many people throughout our lives: teachers, coaches, health care providers, family, friends and benevolent strangers. We cannot give back all that we’ve received, but we can give that love forward.

It is the greatest re-gift.

Categories
Burnaby Division of Family Practice Coping with Loss Emotions Friendship Growth Happiness Letting Go Love Positive Potential Relationships Your Goals

Bring Your Best to a New Year

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As we grow older, each year seems to pass more quickly.

When I was five years old, a summer seemed to last a year; now each season passes in a flash. As we accumulate years in age, each year, month, week and day becomes a relatively smaller proportion of the time we have experienced. And maybe we’re not as attentive.

Yet with each New Year as I review the old calendar, I am always surprised with what has happened in the span of just one year. The media recapitulates the big world events with retrospective spins, but what matters most to you and me are our personal experiences.

There were birthdays, anniversaries and many other celebrations; time spent with family and friends; plays and musicals seen with my wife.

There were hard times too. I looked after two dear patients who died from the most aggressive cancers. Though palliative care is a special opportunity to give my best in the worst situations and care for a whole family when they need it the most, each visit to home and hospice takes its toll. I die a little with each death.

Last year, my wonderful Aunt Cecile passed away in hospice. Though we miss her deeply, we were fortunate to have had the time to express our love and say goodbye.

There were changes in our relationships: meeting some for the first time; saying farewell to others; a deepening of some friendships; a drifting apart with others.

Taking stock of the old year is practice for looking back at one’s life.

Before moving on, I ask, “What am I most grateful for?”

I reflect on the good fortune not just the bad; the wonderful, kind actions of others; my gracious patients who entrust me with their care; my colleagues who support me in our shared calling; the many good people I have worked with to improve the health of our community; my best friends, and my family.

What have I survived? How have I been helped? How have I helped others? What have I learned? How have I grown? The answers are measures of a year and of life.

Entering this New Year, what will we do differently? What activities should we do more of? What should we reduce? What should we cut out all together? What can we create?

This life and each moment are precious. We have nothing to waste.

This year, I’ll be continuing my work with the Burnaby Division of Family Practice in our free public health lectures.

On Friday, January 29th at 7 p.m., I’ll be speaking on “What You Should Know About High Blood Pressure” at the Confederation Community Centre at 4585 Albert Street in North Burnaby (near the Eileen Dailly Pool and McGill library). Register online with lcullen@divisionsbc.ca or call Leona at (604) 259-4450.

Davidicus Wong is a family physician and his Healthwise columns appear regularly in this paper. For more on achieving your positive potential in health, see his website at www.davidicuswong.wordpress.com.

Categories
Compassion Coping with Loss Letting Go Love

My Parents’ Stories: The Cycle of Love

Dad's family & home in Cumberland before his birth in 1930
Dad’s family & home in Cumberland before his birth in 1930

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. At age 9, she was sold to a wealthy Chinese family that moved to Vancouver. 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.

The Ng Siblings
The Ng Siblings

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. There was no extended family to help them. 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 celebrate the love of family 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. The way they told their stories shaped how they lived their lives, related to others and raised our family.

My mom’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 like my brother 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 CYCLE OF LOVE

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, ministers, nurses, doctors and other health care providers – 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.

Categories
Coping with Loss Empowering Healthcare Grace Growth Happiness Healthy Living Letting Go

Write Your Own Life Story

Belle

As children, we are asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” and when we are young, we make our plans. Life intervenes.

People come and go into our lives; relationships change and end.

We make decisions based on who we are and what we know at the time we make them, but we cannot always foresee the consequences. Accidents happen, and illness arises.

Change is constant, unremitting and unavoidable – just like aging, but unlike aging, it is not so predictable. Many young adults see the randomness in their lives, and for many, this is discouraging.

Some of my patients with the wisdom of years look back on their lives with a different view. Though even more people have entered and exited their lives, which have taken ever more unpredictable turns, they discover greater meaning.

Upon thoughtful review, the events of our lives fall into place and create a coherent narrative. Seemingly random events, meetings and even difficulties, take on greater meaning as they led to the lives were meant to live.

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 lives. With deep listening to real life 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?

Together we weave the tapestry of our lives. It is our shared story and work of art. We are given a canvas and paints – 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.

Who writes your life story? From this moment forward, will you accept your calling to be an agent of positive change in the writing of your own life story?

Categories
Balance Compassion Coping with Loss Empowering Healthcare Forgiveness Friendship Grace Happiness Letting Go Love Parenting Positive Change

Achieve Your Positive Potential at Any Age

Tapestry Foundation, VanDusen Garden September 10th, 2015

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.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/96272981@N02/sets/72157656157306844/

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.

                                                                                                            Tsongkhapa

 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.

Davidicus Wong

Categories
Caregiving Compassion Coping with Loss Emotions Empathy Empowering Healthcare Friendship Growth Love Meditation

The Reality of Change

St Stephen's Basilica, Budapest, Hungary
St Stephen’s Basilica, Budapest, Hungary

There is a stereotype that older people can’t keep up with change. Family members will laugh at the blinking display of the unset DVD player (or for the even less adaptable, VCR).

And the older we get, the more quickly time passes and trends change.

But there is wisdom in aging. With time, we see that change is constant and inescapable – in politics, technology, economics and fashion. We learn to be cautious about taking anything for granted because everything changes.

With the insight of change, the wisest give up pinning their happiness to that which doesn’t last: material things, the hottest fashion, the latest Apple product, wealth, popularity and youth.

But for most of us, change is a source of suffering.

As we age, many lament the loss of vigour, the outward signs of aging, illness, and separation from loved ones. We have expectations and when these are thwarted, we grieve their loss. We may feel powerless and in despair.

But if we see life as it is, we will recognize that change is inevitable.

Instead we live with the unexamined expectations that our careers will run smoothly, our relationships won’t change, jobs won’t end, we and those we love will live forever: we won’t age, suffer accidents, become ill or die.

We all know better. Yet we approach each day ignoring reality, taking for granted the beautiful gifts we hold for a moment, acting unkindly to those who may not be here tomorrow, and letting pass by even the smallest opportunities to make a positive difference in our fragile world.

An empowering psychological principle is the locus of control. Some in the midst of change, feel helpless (and thus anxious) then hopeless (and ultimately depressed). They do not feel a sense of control in a sea of change.

But if in a changing world, we recognize the ways we can exert control – where our intentions and actions can make a positive difference, we feel empowered.

If you had a limited amount of cash that had to be spent today, what would you choose to do with it? If you had just one more day to spend with someone you loved, what would you say and what would you do? If you had just this day to make a positive difference in the world, what would you do today?

Would you spend another moment holding onto the past, complaining, watching TV, doing meaningless work or shopping?

I bet you won’t.

Tsongkhapa wrote eloquently of the preciousness of a human life.

“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.”

On Thursday, September 10th, 2015 from 7 to 8:30 pm, I’ll present a free public presentation in the Visitor Centre at the VanDusen Botanical Garden (5251 Oak Street, Vancouver). As part of the Tapestry Foundations for Health Care’s Dialogue on Aging public presentation series, I’ll be talking about “Achieving Your Positive Potential at Any Age.” For information and registration, call (604) 806-9486 or check online at http://www.tapestryfoundation.ca/education/public-presentation-series.