I was given a beautiful new book with Native American proverbs. This Navajo proverb reminds me of the central them of my book, The Rewired Brain. We become what we think the most and if we want to change our lives, we must change our thoughts.
It is with incredible sadness that I sense that our great country is rapidly moving in a very angry, fear-driven and dangerous direction. In my new book, The Rewired Brain, I talk about how that during deeply dark periods of history, we see the dangers of our animal-like survival instincts. These instincts rapidly react when we encounter people that are different (i.e. gender, race, religion, or nationality) than us. Then is especially dangerous if we are edged on by charismatic individuals/leaders from our same tribe.
Then, there is a powerful tendency to move toward fear or hate that ultimately leads to violence, racism, bigotry, misogyny, and exclusion.
In contrast to our animal instincts, I also believe that we have better angels within us. For me as a Christian, this belief is heavily inspired by the teachings of Jesus Christ. Consequently at times like these, it is critical to look to Jesus’s words in the gospels such as his Sermon on the Mount starting with the beatitudes in the 5th chapter of Matthew. Read Jesus’s words in Matt 5:43-48 where he implores us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. Read the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) when Jesus was asked, ‘Who is your neighbor?’ Notice the neighbor, hero and Good Samaritan of the parable is not someone from the religious establishment, not a representative of the dominate political party or race, but an extraordinarily beautiful individual from a religiously despised minority. Read Jesus’s words in Matt 25:31-46 and notice how He says we will ultimately be judged …‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
Jesus’s teachings turn everything and especially our animal instincts to be first and dominate upside down.
I have spent the past 15 years working with refugees from all over the world. I traveled to Darfur, Sudan when millions of people were being killed in an horrific genocide. I currently tutor Syrian refugee children every week. In all of these circumstances, these poor, unfortunate (typically women and children) beautiful people have done nothing to deserve their fate. These Syrians families have lost everything, their homes in places like Aleppo and Homs, most of their family members killed to genocide, all of their possessions, gone. They lived in tin cans and tents in refugee camps in Jordan for 4-5 years and were vetted for over two long years to have the right to walk on our soil. The rumor that there is a lack of vetting is simply not true. These poor people are simply the victims of horrific unthinkable circumstances…these are Jesus’s special ones…our neighbors.
And each time I’m with them, I think, ‘there but for the grace of God go I and my family.’
There are those who rationalize our country’s direction and executive orders by saying all of this is to keep us safe. But I am also a scientist and the data says otherwise. There has never been a case where a Syrian refugee killed an American, and yet these people are banned from our country indefinitely.
You have a 6000 times better chance of being killed by your friends and neighbors than an Islamic immigrant. If you want to ban someone, ban your friends and neighbors.
You have a 10 times greater chance of being killed by an armed toddler or 15 times more likely of being killed by lightning than an Islamic immigrant.
I would end by reminding us that aside from Native Americans, we are all immigrants to this great country. Hate or ban who you want, but do it knowing that if you are an American or a Christian, you are doing it against the key principles that this country stands for and the words and actions of Jesus Christ when he walked this earth.
Understand God’s Role in Your Tragedy
Reframing loss, illness, or grief is a journey from exile. Consciously and unconsciously, we feel tremendous anger, despair, depression, and resentment. Waves of emotion overwhelm our minds. Reframing is not about minimizing, fighting, or ignoring what we have been through; it is about returning from a destination where we feel displaced, disconnected, or depressed. Although we cannot change what happened, we can change our thoughts, our perspective, and our approach to move forward in life.
In my new book The Rewired Brain, I point out that one of the most important things we can do when tragedy strikes is to come to peace with our beliefs about the cause(s) of tragedy
I am always blown away by the foolish things people say to someone going through heartbreak or tragedy. A few years ago, I attended a funeral service of a teenager who had committed suicide. As I stood in line waiting to speak with his parents, I struggled with what to say. Words did not come easily. I knew spouting a monologue or offering advice would be pointless. So I just told this couple who had endured an unthinkable loss how sorry I was and then hugged them tight. What else was there to say?
Unfortunately, I have heard perhaps well-intentioned but misguided people respond in these circumstances with phrases and clichés that only enhance the sufferer’s pain or spotlight a disturbing theological perspective.
If your husband has left you for another woman, if your child has a fatal disease and is in the hospital for the tenth time, if you are dealing with a debilitating physical or mental illness, the last thing you want or need to hear is:
“This is God’s will, and you have to accept it.”
“God never gives us more than we can handle.”
“God has selected you for this burden because he knows how strong you are.”
Perhaps one of the most horrible statements I have heard was when someone approached a couple who had just suffered the loss of their only child. This person said, “I’m sorry you’re sad. But God obviously needed your baby as an angel in heaven more than you did.” I can say with confidence that was not, nor ever will be, the case.
In his book The Will of God, English theologian Leslie Weatherhead tells the profound story of being in India with a friend who had lost his young son in a cholera epidemic. Weatherhead walked beside his friend, who paced up and down the veranda of his home only a few feet away from his sleeping daughter, his only surviving child. The bereaved man turned to the great theologian and said, “Well, padre, it is the will of God. That’s all there is to it. It is the will of God.”
Weatherhead gently disagreed. He loved his friend and knew him well enough to reply with the following words: “Suppose someone crept up the steps of the veranda tonight, while you all slept, and deliberately put a wad of cotton soaked in cholera germ culture over the little girl’s mouth as she lay in that cot on the veranda, what would you think about that?” The father was horrified and replied by saying he would kill the intruder and then asked why he would even suggest such a cruel thing.
Weatherhead quietly explained to his friend that that was what he had done when he had characterized his son’s death as God’s will.
“Call your little boy’s death the result of mass ignorance, call it mass folly, call it mass sin, if you like, call it bad drains or communal carelessness, but don’t call it the will of God.”
What you attribute your tragedy to will make a huge difference in your capacity to reframe it. Whatever you have been through or are going through as you read these words, do not blame God for your suffering.
I love the words of Rabbi Harold Kushner in hid classic book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, “ The God I believe in doesn’t send us the problem; He gives us the strength to cope with the problem.”
I Just Don’t Want to Be Lonely
On an August morning almost a year ago, I was struggling with a particular chapter in the new book (The Rewired Brain) that I was writing entitled, “What it Means to be Human.” Toothbrush in hand, I stared at my reflection in the mirror as I contemplated all of the different aspects of the human condition. Was it possible to sum up the essence of human existence in one chapter, in light of over four thousand years of literature on this topic?
I am so fortunate to have grown up in a small tobacco farming community at the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in North Carolina. I can still picture my dad walking into the house after a long day’s work out in the tobacco fields. Even though Detroit, the home of Motown, was seemingly a million miles away in distance and culture, my daddy introduced me to rhythm and blues heaven right there in rural North Carolina. On any given day, the smooth voices of the Temptations, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, and the Supremes would croon from the record player until the sky was pitch-black and crickets chirped. I still love Motown so as I get ready to head to the Med Center each day, I blast the classic soul and R & B Pandora stations.
On that August morning, I had turned on my iPad and tuned it to Pandora’s “Old Soul Radio” station. A desperate refrain from a 1974 song covered by Main Ingredient repeated itself incessantly through the speakers: “I just don’t want to be lonely.” As I brushed my teeth, my thoughts centered on the complexity of our extraordinary human minds and struggles. In the midst of these thoughts, the previously dulled melodies of this first song of the day sounded louder than my introspection. Suddenly, the significance of the song and particularly the refrain came into focus: What it means to be human is to struggle with anguishing isolation, a desperate need to be in relationships, and an often-tumultuous journey to find a solution to our loneliness.
As a scientist, I aspire to understand thing at their most fundamental level. The famed inventor Elon Musk has said “You boil things down to the most fundamental truths and then reason up from there.” Aristotle defined it as “the first basis from which a thing is known.” No matter how intellectually sophisticated we are, I believe a basis of our human condition is simply and elegantly stated in the Main Ingredient 1974 song, “I just don’t want to be lonely.” In fact, most of us spend our lives trying to overcome the prison of our loneliness through connections and relationships with others, in both healthy and unhealthy ways. We search for meaning. We seek to belong. We desire relationship. We long to cure our loneliness. We question the mysteries of the spiritual life. We come face-to-face with the looming shadow of death. All these aspects of our humanity drive us to find answers that will alleviate our pain.
Enter Africa. A decade ago during a difficult period of my life, I took my first trip to Africa. Partnering with the charitable organization Samaritan’s Feet, our team traveled to eight locations around a community in South Africa over the course of 10 days, helping orphans affected by HIV/AIDS. At the time, this disease had wiped out a generation of young parents. There were twenty thousand orphaned children in that community alone. Our group brought food, water, shoes, and deworming medications for nearly two thousand orphans during our 10-day visit.
Before leaving the U. S., I am almost embarrassed to admit that I had not given the trip much thought. I travel often, and while I had never been to Africa, I thought the visit to this great continent was, at a minimum, an item to check off my bucket list. My lack of introspection prior to the trip probably had to do with the intense pressure and anxiety I was under both at home and at work. I felt depressed, empty and very lonely.
After 30 long hours of travel by air and van, we found ourselves in South Africa at a small Bible college surrounded by a 15-foot-high barbed wire fence in the middle of a large shantytown called Masoyi. Following a few hours of sleep, we were welcomed with a hearty breakfast and a devotional by Manny Ohome, a large African man with a big smile. Manny was originally from Nigeria, had moved to the U. S. to play college basketball, became a very successful businessman, and now was president of Samaritan’s Feet.
Though I can’t remember much about the devotional, I will never forget what this man said to me right after it. We had not yet been formally introduced, but for reasons I did not understand at the time, he picked me out of the crowd and walked straight toward me. Looking me square in the eyes, Manny said, “God told me that you are about to be messed up!”
Taken aback, I stared back at him as if he were crazy. I didn’t know what he meant by his bold statement. Who did he think he was? Obviously, he did not know who I was, an NIH-funded scientist with well over a hundred manuscripts and faculty positions at prestigious institutions such as Johns Hopkins University and Wake Forest University.
Two days later, Manny’s prophetic words became reality. Our group traveled to a banana plantation. I cannot explain what happened the moment I stepped off the bus and my feet touched down on the red African soil, but I immediately sensed my life would forever be changed at this time and by this place. As I turned my head to scan the landscape, my eyes first fell on the hundreds of children confined behind a tangled and rusty barbed wire fence. The older ones stuck their heads through the sharp coils to get a better look at the “rich” Americans walking toward them. I noticed off to the side a group of about fifty infants, likely two years old and under, sitting in muddy sewer water. Some were playing, splashing about in the mosquito-infested puddle. But most were crying, wailing at the top of their lungs.
I was inexplicably drawn to one particular child who appeared to be about two-years-old. His eyes were deep yellow from liver failure as a result of AIDS and tuberculosis. His face badly distorted from a birth defect and the ravages of malnutrition. He was crying, but only halfheartedly, as he had cried for so long without anyone paying attention. I asked the “granny,” an older woman in charge of the smaller kids, the name of the child. She shook her head and shrugged. She didn’t know. That is when I realized none of the hundreds of children behind the barbed wire had a name. That took my breath away.
Staring at the tearful baby, my instinct was to scoop him up in my arms. But as we locked eyes, I thought with fear, “I can’t hold him. There’s too much of a risk.” As a biomedical researcher, I knew the risk of contracting a disease from fluids seeping from every part of his body.
In that moment, for the first time in my life, I felt a powerful yearning. Let me say that I had always been the one in the crowd who scoffed with scientific arrogance whenever I heard someone say they heard the voice of God. But standing there, staring at a malnourished, crying baby in the sweltering African heat, I sensed God asking me two questions, “Who are you?” And then, “Whose are you?” I believe those two questions changed my life forever.
I believe the situation and the questions were a reminder to me of my humanity. I was connected to this child through the family of the human race in ways I could not possibly comprehend. In showing love to this child and others roaming around the banana plantation, I was showing love to the entire human race, and that included myself. The question “Whose are you?” prompted me to step up to a life of action that moved well beyond mere words, theology, and religious tradition. I had a responsibility to provide unconditional love to the universe and somehow I realized that if I did, the universe and God, its maker would give me love back and the keys to my prison of loneliness.
I picked up the child from the muddy water, wiped his face with my shirt, and pressed his face against mine. Holding his emaciated body tight, I softly sang the same lullaby my mom had sung to me. “Bye oh baby, oh bye, oh baby.” Almost immediately, the little guy stopped crying and looked right into my eyes. And for the first time, I saw the face of God. My perspective that everything was meaningless dissipated, and in its place, a new one of purpose stepped in. My dear African brother Manny was right. God had “messed me up”—messed up in the most meaningful way possible that changed the trajectory of my life.
Change is difficult. It is easier and much safer not to ask or answer the difficult questions that may bring change and instead stay stuck within life’s merry-go-round of boredom, disappointments and pain.
In my book The Rewired Brain, I describe three types of people: (1) Those who have no desire to change, lack empathy and believe it’s the world with the problem, not them; (2) People who continue to suffer in unhealthy cycles and toxic relationships but are stuck because they cannot recognize that they have the capacity to change or that they contribute to their situations; and (3) Individuals who have also suffered from this broken world, have made mistakes, perhaps hurt others, and experienced pain and devastation as a result of their unconscious responses to trauma, abuse, rejection, neglect, and betrayal at some point in their lives.
However, unlike the first two groups, this third group over time becomes keenly aware that many of their strategies to life have not worked, and they become determined to find new and better ways to find and express their true Selves. They may have lost in life so far, but they have not given up. They have a strong desire to learn new ways to live in order to create a better future.
If you are a part of this group, you are what my favorite author Paulo Coelho calls a “Warrior of Light.”
You recognize and acknowledge that your life needs to change, and understand the power within you and within your thoughts to change. You are ready and determined to courageously continue on the path of making better choices and living fearlessly.
I believe God was well aware of how tough this earthly life would be and therefore provided us with minds that can recover from our deepest hurts and mistakes. In this way, He provided us incredible grace and made it possible for us to get second, third, and more chances at a new life.
That being said, the process of rewiring is not easy. The brain circuits and superhighways developed by our past must be downgraded and new, more powerful, healthy ones built. Several years ago, I was diagnosed with a serious prostate cancer, the same cancer that took the life of my father at age 66. I was terrified! My diagnosis triggered great fear in me because it made me remember how this cancer and its transition to lung cancer had rapidly led to my father’s death.
But remembering my dad also triggered something else. Dad was my hero, and I also remembered how courageously he lived life with complete freedom, even in the face of cancer. He never let his family and friends know he was dying because he was living so beautifully. So instead of succumbing to the psychological depression this cancer could have given me, I did what my dad would have done.
First, I imagined the one thing that I wanted to do most. I had always wanted to learn to sail, and had never taken the time to do it. So I immediately got on an airplane and flew down to Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. I then got on a sailboat alone with a captain for two weeks. During that time, I earned three sailing certificates and became qualified to sail a large boat. I then came home and bought a sailboat called “Omega.” You see, I did not need or want to focus on my cancer, so I rewired my mind in another direction by intense motivation and concentration on my new obsession…sailing.
Now, three years in remission, I still go to my boat to rewire and inhale the freedom it has given me from fear and regret. I sail throughout the outer banks from Oriental to Ocracoke to Manteo. This is the time when I replace the what-if thoughts of cancer and my job with the peace, freedom and simply being of the wind and water. Maybe you have a place that helps you rewire a tragedy, fear or trauma. Perhaps the beach, a mountain trail or doing something you’ve always wanted to embark upon but have not had the courage. I implore you to “just do it!” If you focus on fear, the fear circuits in your brain will only get stronger and eventually you will be paralyzed by anxiety.
If you, your true Self, deeply desire change and freedom and are willing to become a “Warrior of the Light”, then these are the brain highways that will become stronger and your life will be filled with freedom and joy. And before you know it, you will be doing something you never imagined…like sailing throughout the outer banks!
Every year, roughly 12 million people get news that they never imagined they would hear: “You have cancer.”
Without a doubt, this diagnosis is shocking, upsetting, and terrifying. As a cancer survivor myself, having had two different primary cancers, I can tell you that I certainly can relate to the whirlwind of emotions that comes from such life-altering news.
However, the purpose of my message today is to tell you this: Once you get over the initial shock, how you conduct yourself next can make a world of difference in how well you respond to treatment and recover.
System 1/System 2 Responses
As many of you know, dual (System 1 and System 2) reasoning is a major concept in my new book, The Rewired Brain.
System 1 thinking originates in the lower (reptilian) and mid (limbic system) brain. It is responsible for unconscious emotions and reactions that center on survival instincts.
System 2 resides in the outer regions of the front brain (neocortex and particularly the frontal cortex). In stark contrast to System 1, System 2 thinking is much more developed, deliberate, and uniquely human.
The capacity to use System 2 to make conscious choices gives us the ability to move beyond our fear-based survival instincts and to carry out higher-level cognitive functions, to have distinct unique personalities, to make complex decisions, and to dream and hope.
The Fear Response
What does this have to do with cancer? Well, when you first get diagnosed with cancer (or any disease, really), you have two ways you can react.
I think it’s perfectly natural to initially react in a very System 1 way. In fact, I know I did, and I spent some time in a state of fear and anxiety wondering what was going to happen to me. Being given a cancer diagnosis can be very isolating because no matter how much you are loved, you still have to go through much of this journey alone.
Facing the possibility that this disease could take your life can make you feel very lonely. So, it’s very important to give yourself grace to feel this way.
However, it’s important not to linger too long in this constant state of System 1 fear and anxiety. If you do, there is a wide range of consequences that lead to the deterioration of both your physical and mental health and weaken you, giving your cancer a better chance of winning. And this is the last thing you want to do if you want to be a cancer survivor.
You see, when you’re stressed, your body releases cortisol (often called the “stress hormone”) and other stress-related messengers. Small bursts of cortisol in stressful situations help to initiate the body’s System 1 fight-or-flight response. This is incredibly helpful if you need to escape a fire or run away from a dangerous situation.
But when stress is chronic, it causes cortisol to pump through your body nonstop. Chronically elevated cortisol raises the risk of systemic inflammation, which increases the severity of cancer.
So higher stress makes it harder to fight cancer and makes metastasis more likely.1
The Mindful Response
The second way you can react puts your System 2 conscious mind in control. With a System 2 mindset, you choose to live courageously.
For me, this also means that I choose to connect with God in a very personal and powerful way. I find it fascinating that the phrases “do not be afraid” and “fear not” appear more than 80 times in the Bible. Do you think God is trying to tell us something? Clearly, the writers of this sacred text anticipated our natural tendency toward fear, especially in very scary times such as cancer. But God does not want us to be afraid.
This does not mean you can’t feel fear, anxiety, or uncertainty. These reactions are absolutely normal. Rather, you acknowledge these fears and then allow your conscious mind to monitor them so they don’t take over. This type of mindfulness is difficult at first, but the more you do it, the more natural it becomes.
You may be asking yourself, “Dr. Ski, What specifically does this mean?”
I’ll tell you what I do. To this day, I undergo routine 6-month checkups with my cancer doctors. About a week before these visits, I typically go for blood work and other types of tests to see if the cancer has come back. The doctor tells me the results of these tests at my visits. I’m not going to lie—they’re very stressful and pretty scary.
Prior to these appointments, I give myself permission to think about the worst-case scenarios for 24 hours. I allow my System 1 fears to come through in full force during that time. But that is all that I will allow cancer to take away from me—24 hours, and that’s it. Once that time is up, I get back to living my full, happy, productive, passionate life.
I don’t have time to waste thinking about what-ifs. No one does. For me, the “great blessing” of cancer is that it reminds me of my own mortality and how important it is to spend my time focusing on things, people, and purposes that matter. None of us live forever, so we all ought to “live like we’re dying,” as the country music artist Tim McGraw sings.
With this type of mindfulness, you are able take conscious control of your thoughts and emotions, and you find the capacity to connect with God in a very powerful and meaningful way. Yes, you still have some fear and anxiety because, after all, you are only human. However, you do not allow yourself to live in them and you are constantly reminded and encouraged to “fear not.”
If you have cancer, I want you to know that I understand how you feel. I know how hard it is to consciously take control of your emotions …to let go of the what-ifs…to choose to live life without constant fear… But if you want to live a beautiful life today and for the rest of your life, you must.
I am here for you and with you, and I am praying that this message might help you or someone you love today.
- Moreno-Smith M, et al. Future Oncol. 2010 Dec;6(12):1863-81.