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Wed, Apr 16, 2014 03:28 AM
Issue of April 9, 2014
A hope note
A hope note
Dr. Wayne Willis reflects on life and hope.

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April 09, 2014 | 10:02 AM

"I am ugly. I am unattractive. I know that my skin is awful, my hair is greasy and society simply does not permit women to weigh as much as I do."

"But, mind you, this is not the same as having low self-esteem. Because when I look in the mirror, I hate my body, not myself. I simply shake my head and think, 'This isn't me. This mediocre sack of meat isn't me. I'm just renting it out, driving it around. It's a tool. It's a vehicle. I use it to take myself places that I need to go, and that's all there is to it'."

"I decided a while back that everyone has his or her own strengths and weaknesses, and I would do well to focus on my strengths instead of my weaknesses. Even people who are bad at everything are less bad at some things than they are at others. I concluded that I was less bad at learning things than I was at looking pretty, so I would ultimately benefit far more from sharpening my skills than from trying in vain to undo the effects of losing the genetic lottery."

"It would be far more useful to promote the idea that people can contribute to the world in a variety of interesting and fulfilling ways besides making others salivate over their bodies."

The above sentences were written by a young woman who is an undergraduate at a prestigious university. One day she might discover a cure for cancer.

She makes me question my values. I say that I value others' insides over their surface. But, in reality, I am way too external.

The messiah, according to the Complete Jewish Bible's translation of Isaiah 53, was not "well-formed or especially handsome ... his appearance did not attract us."

Dr. Wayne Willis


April 02, 2014 | 11:26 AM

Two men in a hospital for the incurably ill shared a room. The man in the bed next to the window sat in a chair each afternoon for one hour to keep fluid from building in his lungs. The other man, whose spinal column was fused, had to spend all day flat on his back.

During the hour each day he was sitting up, the man next to the window shared with his roommate the interesting things he saw going on outside. There was a park out there and, in the middle of the park, a small lake where swans swam, parents and their children sailed toy boats and visitors fed ducks. Day after day he would paint in vivid detail scenes of teenagers throwing a Frisbee, lovers walking arm in arm or children flying multicolored kites. The patient in the other bed would just close his eyes and enjoy imagining those scenes in his mind.

One night, the man next to the window died. As soon as it seemed appropriate, the other man asked the nurse if he could be switched over to the bed by the window. She moved him. Soon after she left the room, he managed to raise himself on one elbow high enough to peek over the window sill and get his first look at the park. What he saw instead was a blank wall.

That afternoon he learned from the nurse that the man who had described such wonderful things outside was blind. He could not even see the wall. She suggested: "Maybe he was just trying to help you not get too discouraged."

Logic without imagination can be cold and sterile. Take it from a genius named Einstein who said: "Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere."

Dr. Wayne Willis

The Nicholas Effect

March 26, 2014 | 10:27 AM

In October 1994, four Californians — 7-year-old, freckle-faced Nicholas Green, his sister, Eleanor Green, and their parents, Margaret and Reginald Green — were on holiday in Southern Italy. Highway robbers started following their car. Twice they fired shots into the Greens' car. After the pursuers gave up, Reginald stopped the car and only then realized that Nicholas had been shot in the head.

Nicholas died two days later. His parents, in their hour of unimaginable grief and loss, chose to make him an organ donor. Within hours, seven Italians, some near death, received the child's corneas, kidneys, liver, pancreatic islet cells and heart.

The Greens' act of generosity moved an entire country. The number of organ donations tripled. Italians still call it "The Nicholas Effect." The Italian Parliament passed a law of "presumed consent"; adults who do not put in writing that they are against organ donation are presumed to have given their consent.

The seven recipients of Nicholas' organs were a mother who had never seen her baby's face clearly, a diabetic who had gone into diabetic comas several times, a 15-year-old boy with a body the size of a 7-year-old because of a diseased heart, a sportsman who was losing his eyesight and two children on dialysis.

The other recipient was a 19-year-old girl who was lying in a coma with liver failure the night Nicholas was shot. She became healthy, married and had two children. She and her husband named their son after Nicholas. She said, "We talk about Nicholas — we call him 'Big Nicholas' — all the time."

Reginald Green said: "It never fails to amaze me that a small, 7-year-old boy has touched and changed so many lives. Nicholas would have been so very proud."

Dr. Wayne Willis

'Absorb the universe'

March 19, 2014 | 10:04 AM

Yale theologian George Lindbeck coined the intriguing phrase "absorb the universe." I resisted it at first because it sounded so grandiose and ridiculous, but it has grown on me. Now, I commend it to you.

Everything — nature, history, philosophy, theology, literature, life — is so overwhelming that we have to reduce it, simplify it, condense it down to something usable. For many of us, that means boiling it down to a few sentences or stories that sum up the essence and meaning of things for us. This is how we "absorb the universe."

I offer one example.

A friend was going through the hardest time of his life. He had flown to New York City to appear before a committee to be examined for a certification that he had spent years and a small fortune seeking, and they turned him down. Rejected and humiliated, he felt like the world's biggest loser. He spent 48 hours walking the streets of Manhattan, distraught over what he was going to do.

Many years later, nearing the end of a successful career, as he told me this story, he said that one thing back then kept him from jumping off a bridge. It was a verse that his high school English teacher made him memorize, sentences from William Ernest Henley's "Invictus": "It matters not how strait the gate / how charged with punishments the scroll / I am the master of my fate / I am the captain of my soul." He muttered that sentence hundreds of times as he slouched up and down the island of Manhattan processing his failure and questioning whether he would go home or had a future.

I hope you have a strong default sentence or two to fall back on — to absorb your universe — when the going gets toughest.

Dr. Wayne Willis

Sunday best

March 12, 2014 | 09:08 AM

When I was a boy, people dressed up for church. Men wore suits, and women wore hats. I remember being taught that dressing up was a sign of respect toward God, that we should come before God in our finest.

Now, I suspect that it was also partly to fool others into thinking that we were the way we looked: together, whole, successful and contented, as in the song: "I've got the world on a string / I'm sitting on a rainbow / Got that string around my finger / What a world!"

Today, many preachers, even in some of the mega-churches, no longer wear robes or suits into the pulpit. They wear shirts with the collars open and shirttails out. I think some of it may be strategy to lead with their humanity instead of their divinity, to say with their clothing: "I'm one of you." The congregation is also dressed down.

Occasionally, some church, when they can't find anyone else, invites me to preach a sermon. When I stand before them, I see things different than I did years ago. Many years of working in a hospital, seeing people literally and figuratively stripped down to essentials, warped me to think that beyond every scrubbed-up, smartly-dressed, smiling body is a wounded soul.

Going into imagination mode, I picture a big bandage on her head, him sitting in a wheelchair with one leg elevated in a cast and you with a plastic tube coming out your nose and emptying into a yellow bag.

Anymore, I think of the church not as some museum for saints, but a hospital for the sick and wounded, and the preacher's obligation to hear the prayer of the wounded, as in Milton: "What in me is dark illumine; what is low raise and support."

'Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May'

March 05, 2014 | 10:35 AM

Eunice and Bessie were sisters. When their father died, they came into a considerable sum of money. Bessie, who was younger, let Eunice know that she wanted to do some traveling, but Eunice balked: "Dad was a saver. He would roll over in his grave if he knew we squandered his hard-earned money."

The sisters purchased a small store. During the next few years they made the store very profitable. One day Bessie suggested: "Let's close the store for a month next January and visit a resort. It might be fun using some of those cosmetics and clothes we sell. We might even meet some gentlemen." Eunice nixed the idea, explaining that they would lose loyal customers who would take their business elsewhere.

After many years, the sisters had made enough money to put themselves on easy street. "Come on," said Bessie, "let's sell the store. Let's visit Mexico and Bermuda." Eunice explained: "We can't sell now. In this economy, no one would pay us what the store is worth."

One day Bessie had a stroke and died.

Eunice never entered the store again. She gave Bessie the most expensive funeral the town had ever seen, sold the store and went into seclusion.

Several months later she asked and was granted permission to dig Bessie's casket up and fly her to Mexico. After personally supervising the reburial, she rented a little cottage not far from the grave.

Three weeks later, Eunice obtained another disinterment permit and had Bessie's body dug up and flown to Bermuda.

She bought a little bungalow on the beach. She hired engravers to etch on Bessie's tombstone two rosebuds that bracketed six words: "Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May."

Eunice and Bessie finally made it to those places they had longed to see.

Dr. Wayne Willis


February 26, 2014 | 10:36 AM

A resident in a nursing home developed a rash that itched. Word got around that she had scabies. Before long, many staff and residents who had been around her started itching and scratching. Skeptical that the rash was scabies, her physician called in a dermatologist. Sure enough, the patient had a non-contagious type of dermatitis, and, as soon as the word got out that her rash was not scabies, everyone's itch went away.

"Belief," William James said, "helps create the fact."

Just as negative beliefs help create negative facts (itching from presumed scabies), positive beliefs can help create positive facts (itching ends).

Consider the placebo. When a trusted physician prescribes a placebo, 30 percent of the time the patient gets good results. A placebo, or "sugar pill," has nothing medicinal in it. Drug companies, as a rule, don't even manufacture a medication that gets less than 30 percent satisfactory results because they know a sugar pill can accomplish that.

The classic placebo study was conducted by anesthesiologist Henry Knowles Beecher. In his 1955 paper, "The Powerful Placebo," he examined 15 studies involving 1,082 patients and concluded that 35 percent who were given a placebo got "satisfactory relief" for everything from post-surgery pain to headaches to anxiety. Belief helps create the fact.

The great teacher, Sir William Osler, was wont to tell his medical students: "What happens to a patient with tuberculosis depends more on what he has in his head than what he has in his chest."

"One of the very first things I figured out about life," novelist Barbara Kingsolver ruminates, "is that it's better to be a grateful person than a grumpy one because you have to live in the same world either way, and, if you're grateful, you have more fun."

You may be healthier, too.

Dr. Wayne Willis

Look beyond the labels

February 19, 2014 | 11:25 AM

"An aged man is but a paltry thing/A tattered coat upon a stick" —William Butler Yeats

A friend asked me to visit her dying father. For the 30 minutes I was there, he coughed and sputtered and spit and wiped his nose and paced the floor and shook his head and lamented his wretched state. I left feeling thoroughly spent and, worse, fearing that my time there did him no good and even some harm. I went away feeling profound pity for an inconsolable, miserable, old, dying man.

When I read his obituary a few days later, I was dumbfounded. The pitiable old man I had known only in his death throes had once been an honorable, mighty man. He served for three years in World War II, fighting on D-Day, fighting in the Battle of the Bulge, earning the Combat Infantry Badge and four battle stars.

He came home from the war and started a family, founded a successful business that expanded to five offices, taught in a university, was elected chairman of the board for two hospitals and served as treasurer and chief fundraiser for a number of charities. He was a charter member of his church, where he served as elder, deacon, teacher and Sunday school superintendent. He served without pay as a director on the board of several organizations.

He was Tom Brokaw's quintessential "greatest generation" man who, through intelligence, love for community and Calvinistic work ethic, moved heaven and earth to improve things. But all I could see — to my discredit — was a decrepit old man.

Because of him, I am learning to see beyond labels like "aged" or "dying." I want to consider that disguised inside the most tattered coat upon the most brittle stick may be a noble, exemplary biography.

Dr. Wayne Willis

Love Story

February 12, 2014 | 09:43 AM

Robert wrote to Elizabeth in January of 1845 to praise her poetry: "I love your verses with all my heart."

Elizabeth Barrett, one of England's more prominent poets, was an invalid. In her mid-teens, she had been struck down by a mysterious illness that rendered her reclusive and bedridden.

A cousin of Elizabeth, John Kenyon, arranged for Robert Browning, six years her junior, to visit in her room. There began one of the most famous love stories immortalized in writing.

In one of Robert's early visits, Elizabeth was able to lift her head off the pillow for the first time in a long time. Between visits, they exchanged nearly 600 letters. Robert kept her room populated with flowers. Elizabeth became able to sit up in bed.

Twenty months after their first meeting, they eloped, permanently leaving the polluted air of London for the warmer, cleaner, therapeutic air of Italy.

Elizabeth never saw her father again. He disinherited her, as he did all of his 11 children who married. Letters from Elizabeth to her father were returned unopened.

Elizabeth's health improved remarkably in Italy. At age 43, she was able to give birth to a son. The family of three lived happily there for 15 years. Elizabeth died in Robert's arms.

Out of that relationship came some of history's greatest expressions of romantic love. One of her "Sonnets from the Portuguese" begins: "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. I love thee to the depth and breadth and height my soul can reach." The verse ends: "I love thee with the breath, smiles, tears of all my life! And, if God choose, I shall love thee better after death."

Here's hoping you'll be able to make it a romantic Valentine's Day.

Dr. Wayne Willis

What's better?

February 05, 2014 | 11:05 AM

A popular television commercial features a man wearing a suit sitting in a circle with children. He asks questions like: "What's better: Bigger or smaller? Faster or slower? More or less? Now or later?" The kids give cute, impish answers. The argument the commercial makes is that more and bigger and faster and sooner are more desirable than their opposites.

Some of us buy everything we can afford and charge the things we can't. It may only be when we contemplate leaving everything, and we picture our heirs coming in and opening our closets and storage areas and recoiling at what they're going to do with all of our junk that we realize we have too much.

The opposite extreme is represented by Thoreau, who went to the woods "to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life," or Diogenes, who lived in a barrel and owned only a cloak, a stick and a bread bag. He continued the tradition of Socrates who said: "When I go to the market and see all the wares, I think, 'What a lot of things I don't need'."

Between those out to acquire all they can and those intentionally living simply is the middle way of philosopher Goethe and his nine requisites for contented living:

"Health enough to make work a pleasure.

Wealth enough to support your needs.

Strength enough to battle with difficulties and overcome them.

Grace enough to confess sins and forsake them.

Patience enough to toil until some good is accomplished.

Charity enough to see some good in your neighbor.

Love enough to move you to be helpful to others.

Faith enough to make real the things of God.

Hope enough to remove anxious fears concerning the future."

So, children, what is better: more or less?

Dr. Wayne Willis
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