Monday, October 12, 2009

What Our Hearts Require

This post is an article written by my Uncle Gene, a professor of philosophy and author of the book, "Everyday Philosophy." The topics he writes about emerge from "off-the-cuff answers" he gives to student questions in his classroom. Not always satisfied with his answers, once home he expands on these ideas in short articles that become the contents of his periodical, “Gene's New Philosophical Review.” I am lucky to receive these thoughtful observations, and I fell in love with this one. As always, when I asked my uncle if I could post this article, his answer was yes. I hope you will enjoy reading it as much as I did.

“What to do? What to do? One can have a heart attack from too much
worrying. Eat well, sleep well.” --Maury Tretakoff.

The re-upholsterers said to Dr. Rosenman: "You guys must be psychiatrists. No other Doctor’s office that we have done has all the chairs worn out on the edges. You must have a lot of anxious patients." This came as a surprise to Drs. Rosenman and Friedman, because they were both cardiologists, and had not thought much about the emotional or psychological aspects of heart disease. This led them to years of research, and eventually a book, Type A Behavior and Your Heart, 1984.) The book chronicles the correlation between certain behavioral patterns, and the likelihood of heart disease. (Incidentally, Dr. Friedman had two heart attacks when he was 55; he transformed his behavior, and lived to the ripe old age of 90.)

Since heart disease is the number one killer in America, it might be worth reflecting on what the doctors had to say. To most of us, it seems clear that family history, smoking, a diet high in saturated fats, and a lack of exercise are accurate predictors of the likelihood of heart disease. More recent research has identified anger and "free-floating hostility" as frequent precipitators of heart attacks, but the basic formula developed by Rosenman and Friedman remains intact. (Recent criticisms are aimed at “Type A Behavior” not being a good identifier of what stress really is.) They defined "Type A Personality" as "a particular complex of personality traits, including excessive competitive drive, aggressiveness, impatience, and a harrying sense of time urgency." Now the unpleasant fact is, we live in a culture that demands a lot of competitive drive, that rewards aggressiveness, that generates all kinds of situations that try one's patience, and all of us are given more and more things to do, and have less and less time in which to do them.

Fortunately, there are ways to "reengineer" our lives so that Type A-induced heart disease is less likely. We can begin by eliminating events and activities that are of minimal importance. Some people start by canceling the newspapers and magazines they do not need to read, or withdrawing from organizations to which they have already made their contributions. The second step is to spend as much of your day as possible in a milieu that promotes peace. That may seem ridiculous to a harried worker or a mother of five, but there are still "vestibules of peace" that can be established, moments of sanctuary where thoughts can be gathered, good intentions formulated, and some kind of tranquility found. In this culture of group-think and group-action, we all need time to be alone, time to take our own pulse, time to be sure we have the creative energies necessary to actually produce benefits for ourselves and others.

We are all afflicted with sources of hostility, from the phone that rings during meals, to the undeserved parking ticket, to whatever else that seems to be our own personal demon. Learning not to respond with hostility is a task befitting a stoic philosopher, but there are things we can do to minimize the impact of an environment that sometimes seems downright hostile. We can avoid some of the people or situations that persistently aggravate us, and we can learn to walk away from situations that have built-in escalation clauses. But most important, we can reengineer our responses, so that we tone down the rhetoric, defuse explosive situations, and rise above battles that are not worth our time or energy.

We live in a society that focuses more on having than on being. Much of our economic activity is centered on increasing our possessions, whether that is a bank account or a garage full of unused athletic equipment. How much healthier we would all be, and how much less busy would cardiologists be, if we could concentrate on being the persons we might most want to become, instead of merely being owners of goods of passing significance. Instead of focusing on increasing possessions, what we really need is a philosophical reorientation, so that we can focus on being rather than having, on doing what is intrinsically worthwhile, rather than on letting time disappear into black holes. Our minds and bodies benefit from working, and working hard, but our hearts require leisure. Unless we step back and take time to find delight in life, we are in danger of being swallowed up by our own Type A Behavior. We do not want to wind up sitting on the edge of our seats, in some cardiologist’s office, worried about what our charts might say…


Anonymous said...

Uncle Gene, you are an amazing man.



Anonymous said...

"Focus on being, rather than having..." Very wise and wonderful advice for us all!