I always have had a fascination with words. It stems from my mom and dad, both of whom instilled in me a voracious appetite for reading and writing. Letters from my grandfather blending humor, pathos, self-deprecation, irreverence, sobriety, fact, and thoughtful opinion cemented the notion that words, carefully pieced together, can become inspiring and laudable art.
For that reason, I began compiling a collection of quotes whose messages moved me. Whenever I encounter a particularly noteworthy phrase, I copy and paste it into what has become a reservoir of more than a thousand such references. After ALS darkened my door, some of the passages conveyed an even deeper meaning. I find myself returning to them for perspective as I attempt to navigate this tortuous path.
There’s a popular saying that goes, “I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.” At any juncture in the journey, ALS can emotionally paralyze me with fear and worry. During these unhealthy interludes, I try to remind myself of a parable Bob Phillips told about a man who met Death on the road to a city in a far country. In passing, Death told the man he was going to kill 10,000 people in the city. Later, the man met Death leaving the city. He told Death that he had heard 70,000 had perished there. “‘I only killed ten thousand people,’ Death responded. ‘Worry and Fear killed the others.'”
Several other great minds echo Phillips’ wisdom:
“If I am killed, I can die but once; but to live in constant dread of it, is to die over and over again.” —Abraham Lincoln
“Life is thickly sown with thorns, and I know no other remedy than to pass quickly through them. The longer we dwell on our misfortunes, the greater is their power to harm us.” —Voltaire
Medical evidence supports the homespun thinking that fear and worry are precursors to stress. It has been shown that chronic stress is linked to changes in certain brain areas and physical modifications of neuronal networks. Stress can cause neuroendocrine/immune imbalances that establish a state of chronic low-grade inflammation, a possible prelude to various illnesses. This may cause exacerbation of preexisting medical conditions.
Consequently, I strive to emulate my boyhood idol, Alfred E. Neuman, by adopting his mantra of “What, Me Worry?”
Conversely, hope has a beneficial health impact. A Johns Hopkins study found that “a positive attitude improves outcomes and life satisfaction across a spectrum of conditions.” Per the Mayo Clinic, “When your state of mind is generally optimistic, you’re better able to handle everyday stress in a more constructive way. That ability may contribute to the widely observed health benefits of positive thinking.”
Whenever I find myself short on hope, I conjure up some Emily Dickinson imagery:
“Hope is the thing with feathers,
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all …”
And I wish for Aristotle to be correct in his assertion that “Hope is a waking dream.” In my dreams, I rarely have ALS, and when I do, I am always on my way to being cured.
Of course, hope can be greatly aided by prudent action. Effective action is grounded in knowledge. When we free ourselves from the grasp of fear, objective and actionable learning is possible. As Marie Curie said, “Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.”
Along the way, I try to avoid the electric fence in the Old West adage: “There are three kinds of men. The one that learns by reading. The few who learn by observation. The rest of them have to pee on the electric fence for themselves.”
The trick is to emerge as Dr. Seuss described: “You’re in pretty good shape for the shape you are in. I have heard there are troubles of more than one kind. Some come from ahead and some come from behind. But I’ve bought a big bat. I’m all ready you see. Now my troubles are going to have troubles with me!”
At the end of the day, to paraphrase Jesus, if you love God with everything you have, and you love your fellow man in equal measure to yourself, your heart will be clean. And as Confucius opined, “If you look into your own heart, and you find nothing wrong there, what is there to worry about? What is there to fear?”
Sure, I am tempted to complain, but then I am reminded of Sydney J. Harris’ words, “When I hear somebody sigh that ‘Life is hard,’ I am always tempted to ask, ‘Compared to what?’”
The bottom line is, happiness is our individual decision. As Leo Tolstoy offered, “If you want to be happy, be.”
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