Most of us understand that if we eat better (whatever better means) and if we are more active, our health will improve. But few of us know that if we use our mind “better” that this too will help us be well. This week I will post daily about why this is so and then what we can do to make it so. Today is the why.
Viktor Frankl had refused to leave Germany even though he had a visa because he could not leave his family behind. So he found himself in a cattle car on his way to the camps. He had no idea what it would be like but he knew that it would not be good. So he set himself an experiment. He would evaluate what gave people the best chance of surviving. Would it be their physical or mental state? Would the young and the fit have the edge or would those that could not allow this terrible place to get to them too much. The answer was resoundingly in favour of those that could use their mind to stop them from giving up. In particular those who could still hear the birdsong and those that still had a sense of meaning in their lives. The book to be written – the desire to see their family once again – even being a selfless helper to others.
“On my fourth day in the sick quarters I had just been detailed to the night shift when the chief doctor rushed in and asked me to volunteer for medical duties in another camp containing typhus patients. Against the urgent advice of my friends (and despite the fact that almost none of my colleagues offered their services), I decided to volunteer. I knew that in a working party I would die in a short time. But if I had to die there might at least be some sense in my death. I thought that it would doubtless be more to the purpose to try and help my comrades as a doctor than to vegetate or finally lose my life as the unproductive laborer that I was then.” p. 69.
How we think and how we therefore react to our environment is a critically important aspect of our health. Epic tales of survival reinforce this truth – such as Shackleton’s Antarctic adventure or the 47 days of floating in a life raft in the shark infested Pacific by Louie Zamperini.
Sir Michael Marmot’s work shows us that low social status and lack of power and control have a huge impact on our immune system and so health. Robert Sapolsky shows us the mechanism for how this works. But we are not condemned by our social environment or our predicament. In many cases we cannot change it. Frankl could not and if you have to work in a large bureaucracy – you cannot either.
But we can take charge of how we think about who and where we are. For how and what we think carves neuron pathways in our brains. If you feel helpless, then these feelings will increase and deepen. So you will be stressed all the time. With constant stress, cortisol will weaken your immune system.
Tomorrow we start with the how but I leave you with two small pieces from Frankl. The first is his epiphany in the camp. The second a short video where he shows us how to “see” others.
… We stumbled on in the darkness, over big stones and through large puddles, along the one road leading from the camp. The accompanying guards kept shouting at us and driving us with the butts of their rifles. Anyone with very sore feet supported himself on his neighbor’s arm. Hardly a word was spoken; the icy wind did not encourage talk. Hiding his mouth behind his upturned collar, the man marching next to me whispered suddenly: “If our wives could see us now! I do hope they are better off in their camps and don’t know what is happening to us.”That brought thoughts of my own wife to mind. And as we stumbled on for miles, slipping on icy spots, supporting each other time and again, dragging one another up and onward, nothing was said, but we both knew: each of us was thinking of his wife. Occasionally I looked at the sky, where the stars were fading and the pink light of the morning was beginning to spread behind a dark bank of clouds. But my mind clung to my wife’s image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look was then more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise.
A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth — that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way – an honorable way – in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, “The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory….”
And now – how to love even the worst person: