Psychic Numbing

I first encountered the words “psychic numbing” in a book about the survivors of Hiroshima by Robert Jay Lifton. The words meant that sometimes in the face of great tragedy or losses, people become numb to the realities they witness, often in order to protect their psyches from the painful shocks.

I was watching the news the other night and suspected there are many out there in the world who are now suffering from psychic numbing, whether the loss of a child gunned down in the streets of Philadelphia or Chicago or Reading, or the horrid sight of a journalist being beheaded, or children lost as bombs hit their schools in Gaza. There is enough tragedy around in the world these days for waves of psychic numbing.

In a less obvious way, most of the so-called “reality shows” on television provide second hand experiences of reality, as if we don’t have enough reality in the world or our lives to feel sadness over. Freud used to say that we cured people of great suffering in order to make them face daily suffering.

So what do we do?

First, there’s no way through sadness but through. As they say, “Denial is not a river in Egypt.” If you stuff the sadness too far down it becomes a way of life, a block to experiencing all emotions, joy included. If you need help making it through, seek it–through someone trained to help.

Second, see if you can practice focusing on what’s right and good around you, as simple as a friend or family member or walk. If you can establish a mindful practice of looking for what’s good, you may actually discover it’s always been there. I know it’s not easy, but you can do this if you try.

Third, practice what most all great world spiritual traditions teach–have compassion for yourself and others. Instead of judging others, find a way to connect with their losses. Instead of judging yourself harshly, find a way to accept and move on.

There’s a prayer often recited in AA groups that offers great wisdom to anyone. It comes in many forms but here is one I have heard:

Grant me the patience to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and must change, and the wisdom to know the difference.,

Site for Robert Jay Lifton’s book on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Death-Life-Robert-Jay-Lifton/dp/080784344X/ref=sr_1_8?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1409401417&sr=1-8&keywords=robert+jay+lifton

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Remembering 1963 March on Washington, D.C. for Peace and Jobs

I was a college student when the famous “I Have A Dream” speech was given by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Washington, D.C. on August 18 over fifty years ago. But I was there in a crowd then estimated as one of the largest ever assembled for a protest there. I remember the crowd and Dr. Kings speech and nearly falling in the wading pond when someone held on to my shirt and said: “Hang on, brother, don’t fall down.”

Strange how those few words from someone I did not know and who probably is not alive any longer have come to mean more to me now in these days of racial turmoil and still income gaps wider than ever before. We thought we were witnessing the beginning of a movement. Looking back it feels like the movement needs rekindling. Yes, there certainly has been some progress but segregation still rules and economic justice is harder to find now than it was then.

Dr. King’s dream of a truly diverse America where people are judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin is a long way from reality. But the dream still lives on and dare I say it represents the intent of our founders where every person has worth and dignity–“life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

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Small, Kind Acts Offer Hope

If you think the world is “going to hell in a pot,” and there’s nothing one person can do, perhaps you are right. You can’t change the world completely, but you can change for the better parts of the world in which you live, and that’s important. Mother Teresa reportedly said: “If you can’t do great things. do small things in a great way.” And I would add, “there are no small things if done in a great way.”

One kind, small compassionate, even anonymous, act a day can make a difference, both for others and for how you feel about yourself.

Here’s a link to an advertisement that inspires me. Take a look:

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Can You Spare a Half Hour A Day to Save Your “Soul?”

If you can’t spare a half hour a day to save whatever “soul” you believe or don’t believe you have, then it may be time to do a self assessment. I was reading an article by writer Anne Lamott who advised people to take one half hour a day, thirty minutes, to discover or continue taking care of their souls, whether taking a walk, sitting in a garden, or something to nourish that creative side of themselves–whether it’s listening to music, writing or reading a poem, painting, bird watching or baking a cake. You don’t have to climb a mountain or write the next great novel to nourish your soul I should know–I’m still at work on the next great novel and I haven’t even considered climbing a mountain. A hill is enough for me. All of which makes me realize that most times life is about small steps, one at a time, like a baby learning how to walk. You have to crawl first, fall down a few times, then get up.

I know my excuses for not saving my soul and I’ve heard many others from students in my classes. “I’m too busy.” “I barely have time to sleep.” “I’m tired.” But I am convinced from my life that if I have a half hour to watch the evening news, I can find a half hour to take care of what matters–my inner life, which is nourished by what feeds and not destroys my joy in being alive.

So here’s my point to myself: Start today. Don’t try to write the next great novel or start a new group. Take a half hour to feed your soul, in whatever way works for you. I just tried what I am suggesting others try. I took a half hour to read an article about creating space for my soul to feel nourished and not drained, sat where I am right now and looked outside. And then wrote this article.

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And the truth of the article hit home. I can spare a half hour a day to feed my soul. For me, it is writing or teaching. These replenish my soul, but only in moderation. If I had to teach thirty hours a week, I’d be drained. If I wrote eight hours a day for seven days a week, I would collapse. But if I took a half hour a day to read a few words, meditate, sit and write a page a day, I would feel better–about myself and certainly more renewed.

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Mother Teresa once said if you can’t do great things (and who can?), do small things in a great way. So this column starts my half hour, one page a day time for my soul. From time to time I will let you know how things are going. If you feel the need and have the time, send me an email about your half hour a day. Who knows, if I write a page a day I might just finish a novel. And if enough of you take the half hour, you might do whatever it is that stirs and renews your inner self.

A wise teacher once said: “What does it profit a person to gain the whole world, and lose his or her own soul?” Need I answer the question?

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Filed under John C. Morgan, Self care, Soul Time, Spirituality, Teacher, Time

“Death in Slow Motion”–Our Mother’s Long Journey*

In Memory of Our Sister, Mary Ann Morgan, R.N., B.S.N., M.S.N.

By Howard C. and John C. Morgan

Our mother, Margaret Lyon Morgan, died of a terrible disease, which some have described as “death in slow motion.” It’s called Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Those who work with dying people realize it is not death they fear but a painful dying. And one of the longest and most difficult endings is for those with Alzheimer’s–and those who witness this process suffer with them, often silently.

Our mother suffered with dementia, probably Alzheimer’s before it was called such, and died nearly fifty years ago. When we think our mother died nearly a half century ago, our minds pause because while it seems so long ago, memories of her remain both before and after she was stricken as if it were yesterday.

Because we lived states away, we returned to see her only for occasional visits. Each time we saw the steady progression downward, with memory and cognitive losses, confusion–and toward the end inability to communicate. It was not easy to see, and probably because we did not see it every day, all the more striking when we did.

In the United States there are some 5 million people with Alzheimer’s and as the population ages there will be many more unless resources are directed toward its cure. Dementia is a broad term that involves brain damage, but about sixty to eighty percent of all dementia cases are Alzheimer’s. It is not a normal functioning of aging. It can persist for up to twenty years as cells die off following the patterns in which they first developed. It’s like the growth process in reverse.

We were so focused on my mother, we often forgot about the caregivers around her, our father and sister especially. We didn’t ignore them but when you have seen a loved one suffering from Alzheimer’s it’s difficult to focus on more than her condition because it is so obvious. My father and sister were players in a plot which drew our attention otherwise each time we returned to where we grew up.

Our mother wanted to be an actress but instead chose the life of raising children and managing the household. She had a remarkable memory; she was able to recite long poems and stories to amuse us and audiences who gathered to hear her. To see her near the end barely knowing her name or us was painful. Did she know who she was? Did she know who we were? When we spoke with her, was she there? Only at times were there hints she might still be inside that deteriorating body.

Our sister had been a nurse and a nursing instructor at colleges in the Philadelphia area. She and our father were the caregivers, but we think a great deal fell on her, given the fact she was knowledgeable about diseases. But as she once told one of us: “Nothing in nursing school or practice ever prepared me for this.” Day after day, returning from a full day of teaching, she took over care from my father, who himself was exhausted. She seldom complained, but it was obvious from her phone calls how difficult this was for her. She once said that nothing she had ever done in nursing was as exhausting as this, and she’d worked on a cancer ward for children in New York City and in a city hospital in Philadelphia.

We tried to help as we could, but what she really needed was respite from the care she was providing not only hospital patients and students but her own mother—not to mention our father who depended on her as well. She once said she told her students it wasn’t the best thing to care for your own family because you cannot always remain focused on the patient as patient, not as parent or spouse or brother. Now here she was not following her own guidance because she felt it her duty.

Alzheimer’s is one of those diseases that is hard to understand unless you have witnessed its devastating impact on a family member or friend. It changes the perception of the loved one, even as you know the outer shell is there, the inner seems strangely transformed. It is a long journey into night, as difficult for the caregivers as anyone could possibly imagine unless you have been a caregiver yourself or seen one functioning in your family. In the last months of her life, my mother was bed-ridden and often had difficult eating or breathing. Our sister once described the last days of our mother’s life, something no one should have to endure, especially because she was a gentle and giving person.

An 18th Century physician, Dr. George de Benneville, whose near death experience changed his life, reported going to the other side and discovering hell in one word: confusion. That seems an apt metaphor for our mother’s descent into darkness: confusion. We were confused, too, not knowing how much she recognized or knew.

What might have helped our sister and father as caregivers were more community supports, at least to relieve them from time to time. Agencies and religious organizations could have helped, but seldom were asked. Some community services are available these days as contrasted to the days my mother lived and died, but these are often not enough and cost beyond what some can afford. What’s really needed is a cure for this disease and a greater sense of urgency to combat it. Some argue it might be possible to find a cure by the year 2020, but only if enough resources are put into finding one.

It’s time to find a cure, for those who suffer from Alzheimer’s but also for those who care for them.

Howard C. Morgan is a retired banker and active in interfaith work. John C. Morgan teaches college philosophy and ethics and is a writer. They are both founding members of ClergyAgainstAlzheimer’s.

*Originally in Arete, reprinted in national publication, US Against Alzheimers

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John Morgan and Mother

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Variations on Descartes

The philosopher Descartes set the stage for modern philosophy by saying there was one thing he could not doubt: that he doubted. His famous phrase was: I think, therefore I am (cognito ergo sum).

It’s time for some 21st Century versions of his famous slogan (oh, how I detest attempts to make Shakespeare or the Bible “relevant”), but here goes.

“I stink, therefore I am.” (Person with bad breath, or a skunk).

“I am, therefore I think.” (Existentialist or Egoist).

“I fly, therefore I am.” (Pilot or pigeon).

“I shrink, there I am.” (My all cotton shirt or a therapist).

“I spy, therefore I am.” (Facebook or most of social media)

“I buy, therefore I am.” (Person with great credit card debt).

“I split, therefore I am.” (Contortionist or infinitive).

And, then, there’s one of my favorite quotes from a 19th Century Welsh poet:

As I heard a clever man say he had once,
for three months, doubted his own existence,
but it was in his youth, before he had rheumatism.
(Sarah Williams, Twilight Hours, 1872)

Any new versions of Descartes’ statement received, if not gratefully, at least received.

Visiting Lecturer

(S.B. Schliermach, Universidad, Salamanca0

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Robin Williams, Teacher

I envision Robin Williams arriving at the gates of heaven and telling a few jokes to St. Peter. Or, when he was once asked what he hoped God would say to him when he arrived–“there are still some seats upfront.”

I realize his comic genius, much like Jonathan Winters. Each of them suffered from depression but turned their maniac phases into great comedy. Williams was like a poet, creating something out of seemingly nothing, pulling great ideas out of the air and giving the commonplace new meaning.

But it is one of his more serious performances as a teacher in the movie, “A Dead Poets Society,” I watch from time to time to remind me of what teaching can and should be–an art, not a technique, a way of connecting people with each other and great traditions. When I need encouragement I watch this movie again or read Parker Palmer’s book The Courage to Teach,which evokes the heart of what learning should be, even in the face of standardized tests, cutbacks and unrealistic demands.

I know I have stood on desks, grabbed cell phones when being used in classes, taken students on walks to illustrate what a river or tree teaches, and wished I had formed a Dead Philosophers Society to help me and them realize how vital and important the love of wisdom (philosophy)is to their lives and mine.

But this is mild when compared to Williams’ role as a teacher.

I am also aware of the fact that often great geniuses, whether comic or not, also know the dark nights of the soul. So did Robin Williams. He brought us such joy and delight in living, it is made more difficult trying to grapple with his apparent suicide.

Another real, great life teacher, Morrie as depicted in Mitch Albom’s book, Tuesdays with Morrie, once said that one of life’s great teachings was learning when to hold on and when to let go. I wish Robin Williams had held on longer for the rest of us.

All I can think of this morning are the words of the teacher in The Dead Poets Society, what he tried to teach his students; “CARPE DIEM” (Seize the Day).

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Philosophy students in an outdoor space they created and built at Reading Area Community College, where I once taught.

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