Richard G. Petty, MD

Albert Schweitzer

Today is the birthday of Albert Schweitzer who was born in  Kaysersberg, Alsace-Lorraine, Germany. It is one of those parts of the world that has often changed hands and is now in Haut-Rhin, Alsace, France.

He was a remarkable man: as a youngster he was a famous organist and was highly interested in the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, whom he regarded as a religious mystic.

He decided that after the age of 30 he would dedicate himself to the service of humanity and became both a theologian and physician. He received the 1952 Nobel Peace Prize in 1953 for his philosophy of "reverence for life" expressed in many ways but most famously in founding and sustaining the Lambaréné Hospital in Gabon, west central Africa.

I have heard some people be very critical of Schweitzer, describing him as patronizing toward Africa. I don’t think that is right. If you look at his actions and his writings, it is clear that he had an extraordinary compassion and vision.

Here are a few of his writings from my own collection. I hope that you find some of them as inspirational as I have.

“A great secret of success is to go through life as a man who never gets used up.”

“A heavy guilt rests upon us for what the whites of all nations have done to the colored peoples. When we do good to them, it is not benevolence it is atonement.”

“A man can do only what he can do. But if he does that each day he can sleep at night and do it again the next day.”

“A man does not have to be an angel to be a saint.”

"All the kindness which a man puts out into the world
works on the heart and thoughts of mankind.”

“All work that is worth anything is done in faith.”

“An idea is, in the end, always stronger than circumstances.”

“Anyone who proposes to do good must not expect people to roll stones out of their way, but must accept their lot calmly, even if people roll a few stones upon it.”

“As soon as man does not take his existence for granted, but beholds it as something unfathomably mysterious, thought begins.”

“As we acquire more knowledge, things do not become more comprehensible, but more mysterious.”

“At that point in life where your talent meets the needs of the world, that is where God wants you to be.”

“At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.”

“Be faithful to your love and you will be recompensed beyond measure.”

“Because I have confidence in the power of Truth and of the spirit, I believe in the future of mankind.”

“By having reverence for life, we enter into a spiritual relation with the world.”

“Do something wonderful, people may imitate it.”

“Ethical existence is the highest manifestation of spirituality.”

“Ethics, too, are nothing but reverence for life. That is what gives me the fundamental principle of morality, namely, that good consists in maintaining, promoting, and enhancing life, and that destroying, injuring, and limiting life are evil.”

“Every man has to seek his own way to make himself more noble and to realize his own true worth”

“Example is not the main thing in influencing others. It is the only thing.”

“Happiness is nothing more than good health and a bad memory.”

“I don’t know what your destiny will be, but one thing I do know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.”

“I have always held firmly to the thought that each one of us can do a little to bring some portion of misery to an end.”

"If you love what you are doing, you will be successful."

“In everyone’s life, at some time, our inner fire goes out. It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being. We should all be thankful for those people who rekindle the inner spirit.”

“In the same way as the tree bears the same fruit year after year, but each time new fruit, all lastingly valuable ideas in thinking must always be reborn.”

“It seemed to me a matter of course that we should all take our share of the burden of pain which lies upon the world.”

“Knowing all truth is less than doing a little bit of good.”

“Man has lost the capacity to foresee and to forestall.  He will end by destroying the earth.”

“Man is a clever animal who behaves like an imbecile.”

“Medicine is not only a science, but also the art of letting our own individuality interact with the individuality of the patient.”

“Natural and super-natural, temporal and eternal – continuums, not absolutes.”

“No ray of sunshine is ever lost,  but the green which it awakens into existence needs time to sprout,  and it is not always granted for the sower to see the harvest. All work that is worth anything is done in faith.”

“One thing I know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who will have sought and found how to serve.”

“One truth stands firm. All that happens in world history rests on something spiritual. If the spiritual is strong, it creates world history. If it is weak, it suffers world history.”

“One who gains strength by overcoming obstacles possesses the only strength which can overcome adversity.”

“Only those who respect the personality of others can be of real use to them.”

“Reverence for life affords me my fundamental principle of morality, namely that good consists in maintaining, assisting, and enhancing life, and that to destroy, to harm, or to hinder life is evil.”

“Success is not the key to happiness; Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful.”

“The awareness that we are all human beings together has become lost in war and through politics.”

“The first step in the evolution of ethics is an enlargement of the sense of solidarity with other human beings.”

“The greatest discovery of any generation is that human beings can alter their lives by altering their attitudes of  mind.” (He is here reiterating something said by the great psychologist and philosopher William James)

“The human spirit is not dead. It lives on in secret…. It has come to believe that compassion, in which all ethics must take root, can only attain its full breadth and depth if it embraces all living creatures and does not limit itself to mankind.”

“The man who h
as become a thinking being feels a compulsion to give to every will-to-live the same reverence for life that he gives to his own.”

“The tragedy of life is what dies inside a man while he lives.”

“The true worth of a man is not to be found in man himself, but in the colors and textures that come alive in others.”

“There are two means of refuge from the miseries of life: music and cats.”

“There is no higher religion than human service. To work for the common good is the greatest creed.”

“There is so much coldness in the world because we are afraid to be as cordial as we really are.”

“To educate yourself for gratitude means to take nothing for granted but to seek out and value the kindness that lies behind the action.”

“Until he extends his circle of compassion to include all living things, man will not himself find peace.”

“Very little of the great cruelty shown by men can really be attributed to cruel instinct. Most of it comes from thoughtlessness or inherited habit. The roots of cruelty, therefore, are not so much strong as widespread. But the time must come when inhumanity protected by custom and thoughtlessness will succumb before humanity championed by thought. Let us work that this time may come.”

“We cannot possibly let ourselves get frozen into regarding everyone we do not know as an absolute stranger.”

“Wherever a man turns he can find someone who needs him.”

“Your life is something opaque, not transparent, as long as you look at it in an ordinary human way.  But if you hold it up against the light of God’s goodness, it shines and turns transparent, radiant and bright.  And then you ask yourself in amazement:  Is this really my own life I see before me?”

The Biology of Beauty

When we think about the characteristics that make someone physically attractive most of us probably think that they are purely subjective and culture bound. But recent evidence suggests that this is not true.

In an astonishingly comprehensive study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, Devendra Singh from the University of Texas at Austin has analyzed references to fictional beauties from modern times back to early Indian literature. He found that slimness of the waist was the most common term of praise from an author.

I found it very surprising that this association even seemed to hold in times when a more Rubenesque figure was in fashion.

But I think that the key is not the actual number of inches, but the ratio of waist to hips.I have commented several times that the waist to hip ratio is probably a better physical marker of health risk than body mass index (BMI). Though even this needs to be supplemented by other tests.

Professor Singh’s work has nothing to do with making value judgments, but is instead looking at some of the factors involved in mate selection and this work adds to evidence highlighting the role of the ratio between waist and hips in attracting a mate.

All the recent furor over the dangerously shrinking fashion model has again raised the question that although female waist size has become important in modern Western society and culture – and is likely a factor fueling eating disorders – it is not completely clear whether this waist obsession has always been the case.

In what can only be described as a labor of love, Singh has spent years examining representations of women through history, and in one study, he measured the waist-hip ratio of hundreds of statues from different eras.

In the most recent research, he looked at how "attractive" women were depicted in literature, analyzing more than 345,000 texts, mainly from the 16th to 18th centuries. While most of the writings were British and American, there was a small selection of Indian and Chinese romantic and erotic poetry dating from the 1st to the 6th century of the Christian era.

Singh had this to say: "The common historical assumption in the social sciences has been that the standards of beauty are arbitrary, solely culturally determined and in the eye of the beholder. The finding that the writers describe a small waist as beautiful suggests instead that this body part – a known marker of health and fertility – is a core feature of feminine beauty that transcends ethnic differences and cultures."

Other studies have found a link between a woman’s waist to hip ratio and her fertility which may offer some explanation as to why during evolution it became a factor in selecting a mate. The ratio, like breast size and smooth complexion, is partly under the control of estrogen, which is, of course, a key hormone in the maintenance of fertility.

There has been a great deal of work – and even more speculation – about why men and women are found physically attractive. The idea is that beauty is an indicator of genetic and developmental health. There is also some evidence that physically "attractive" people are healthier than less attractive people.

In 2004 Satoshi Kanazawa and Jody Kovar from the London School of Economics published an intriguing study in the journal Intelligence with the controversial title: “Why Beautiful People are More Intelligent."

The basic idea is that evolutionary processes have, both genetically and socially, led to what we call assortative mating, in which partners have been chosen for their strength, good health and even height: all attributes which have given their possessors a high status. I must be honest that even though I’ve seen the data, when I see and hear some of the comments of a few people in the public eye I still question the association between beauty and intelligence.

There appear to be a few features that characterize physically attractive faces: bilateral symmetry, averageness, and secondary sexual characteristics. Attractive faces tend to be more symmetrical than unattractive faces. 

Fluctuating asymmetry (FA) – random differences between the two sides of the face – is usually not found to be attractive. And this may be why: it increases with exposure to parasites, pathogens, and toxins during development. FA also increases with genetic disruptions, such as mutations and inbreeding. Developmentally and genetically, healthy individuals have less FA and more symmetry in their facial and bodily features.

Across many societies around the world, there is a positive correlation between parasite and pathogen prevalence in the environment and the importance placed on physical attractiveness in mate selection. The theory is that in societies where there are a lot of pathogens and parasites it is especially important to avoid individuals who have been afflicted with them when they select mates. 

Facial averageness in another feature that increases physical attractiveness: faces with features close to the population average are more attractive than those with extreme features. The evolutionary reasons for why average faces in the population are more attractive than extreme faces are not as clear as the reasons for why facial symmetry is attractive. Some current speculation is that facial averageness results from the heterogeneity rather than homogeneity of genes so that would mean that individuals with average faces are more resistant to a larger number of parasites. Therefore like FA, facial averageness may be an indicator of genetic health and parasitic resistance.

There is good data that infants as young as 2-3 months gaze longer at a face that adults have judged attractive rather than a face judged unattractive. And other research has shown that 12 month old infants exhibit more observable pleasure, more play involvement, less distress, and less withdrawal when interacting with strangers wearing attractive masks, than with strangers wearing unattractive masks. They also play significantly longer with facially attractive dolls than with unattractive dolls.

2-12 months is not nearly enough time for infants to have learned and internalized the cultural standards of beauty through socialization and media exposure. So the research data seems to suggest that the standards of beauty might be innate, rather than learned.

Even though there is all this evidence for a evolutionary and biological factors in beauty, it is a mistake to use such a simple model  to try and explain away all of our partner preferences.

By the time that they leave high school, most people have grasped that physical attractiveness is an important first step in attraction, but after that becomes highly
subjective: delightful but not essential.

This work also fails to take into account the attractiveness of factors like radiance, humor, attention, attentiveness, energy, self-assurance, movement, grace and gesture.

Neither can it take account curiosity, presence, charisma, compassion and spiritual awareness. All of these can be extremely attractive, but are hard to explain on simple biological and evolutionary models.

And, by the way, all of these additional factors can be learned: whatever your weight and measurements, whether you are tall or less so and whatever your age.

You can learn to develop many of the things that genetics may have forgotten.

“Beauty awakens the soul to act.” –Dante Alighieri (Italian Poet and Philosopher, 1265-1321)

“Beauty is not in the face, beauty is a light in the heart.” –Kahlil Gibran (Lebanese Poet and Philosopher, 1883-1931)

Healthcare Blogging Summit

I had the pleasure and privilege of speaking at the Healthcare Blogging Summit in Washington DC yesterday. Here is a short summary with some interesting observations.

It was an extremely interesting meeting which will likely have a major impact on the role of blogs in health care and wellness.

I met many fine and memorable peple and was very struck by one in particular: F. Nicholas Jacobs, who is said to be the first hospital CEO to blog. It was not just what he had to say, but the energy with which he said it.

I wanted to quote something from his blog which is entirely in line with my own thinking about how a place of healing should function:

If you treat people with respect and dignity, with love and a total commitment to their health, it works. They don’t sue you because they know you care about them. They don’t hate you because they know that you respect them. They recommend you to their friends and relatives because they trust you.

As the brain surgeon says: “This is NOT rocket science.” And as the rocket scientist says, “This is NOT brain surgery.” If you put people into a healing environment, they heal. If they are not living in complete terror about the next unknown that is going to happen to them, they heal. In fact, their white blood cells may actually be given a chance to work!

You can wash your hands 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and you should. But… people will still get infections if you restrict their loved ones from being with them, if you treat them like a body part, if you don’t tell them what’s coming next, and don’t give them choices in their care. Instead, one of our senior leaders always says about Windber Medical Center, “We do not make our patients leave their dignity at the door.”

Nick had never heard of Integrated Medicine. He is quite evidently just a smart, kind and loving person who sees the big picture.

We need more people like him.

But here is the good news, there are more people like him that are rising through the ranks in medicine. They are realizing that in the same way that patients should not leave their dignity at the door, a successful administrator or departmental chair does not have to leave behind his or her humanity, caring and compassion.

The Vagal Path to Compassion

Students of biology or medicine will likely be familiar with one of the largest single nerves in the body, called the vagus or “wandering” nerve. The nerve emerges from the brainstem and is one of the most important contributors to the parasympathetic nervous system, having important effects on the heart, lungs and intestines. The vagus causes the heart to slow, the intestines and kidneys to become more active and the bronchi to constrict. The vagus also has profound effects on metabolism: it has been known for more than a century that stimulating the base of the brain with opiates can cause the release of glucose from the liver, an effect mediated by the vagus. The nerve is also involved in the interaction of the immune system and the brain.

In recent years a technique called vagus nerve stimulation has been found to help some people with intractable epilepsy or treatment resistant depression. Many of the techniques of yogic or Taoist breathing as well as some techniques for inducing altered states of consciousness by eye movements or stimulating specific points on the ears all revolve around vagal stimulation. Some of these techniques have been shown to produce a sustained reduction in blood pressure.

I would like to focus upon the effects of the vagus on the heart. The heart is a physical location of an aspect of our emotional functioning. In Chinese Medicine it is known as the repository of Shen or Spirit. The heart is more than just a pump. It is also an important endocrine gland, and there is some evidence that it is also a sensory organ, with a sophisticated system for receiving and processing information. The neural network within the heart enables it to learn and remember. The heart constantly communicates with the brain, influencing key areas involved in perception, cognition and emotional processing.

You or someone you know may have had a baby. In which case you or they will have had intrauterine cardiac monitoring. Normally the baby’s heart rate varies from minute to minute. Some forty years ago it was discovered that if that variation stopped, it could be a harbinger of doom. Obstetricians knew this, but the rest of medicine forgot about the observation until 1991. Since then there has been enormous interest in the phenomenon of heart rate variability (HRV), because if it is lost, it can be a potent predictor of health problems. HRV reflects the tone in the autonomic nervous system. If this system becomes unbalanced, it can have effects on most of the major organs.

In the Ageless Wisdom the vagus is called our psychic antenna. We all have one, but not all of us have relearned how to use it. Many psychic stressors can produce physical effects via the vagus nerve. When doing acupuncture or energy healing it is very common for the patient to get a slowing of their heart rate and abdominal rumblings, which are sure signs of vagal activity. Psychics often get problems with their intestines while working with people, not from upset, but because they are exercising their skills.

There has been some interesting speculations about the role of the vagus in social behavior. Researchers have found
that children with high levels of vagal activity are more resilient,
can better handle stress, and get along better with peers than children
with lower vagal tone.

There is a project underway at the University of California at Berkeley to see whether the vagus nerve might be the seat of compassion. Dacher Keltner is a professor of psychology and coeditor of Greater Good, a magazine about prosocial behaviors such as compassion and forgiveness. He has been examining the novel hypothesis that the vagus nerve is related to prosocial behavior such as caring for others and connecting with other people.

In his laboratory, Keltner has found that the level of activity in people’s vagus nerve correlates with how warm and friendly they are to other people. Interestingly, it also correlates with how likely they are to report having had a spiritual experience during a six-month follow-up period. Vagal tone is correlated with how much compassion people feel when they are presented with slides showing people in distress, such as starving children or people who are wincing or have a look of suffering on their faces.

Perhaps a key to compassion is to be found in the heart and the face.

Compassion is crucial to our survival. But compassion leavened with wisdom.

“Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them humanity cannot survive.”
–The 14th Dalai Llama (a.k.a. Tenzin Gyatso, Tibetan Religious and Political Leader, 1935-)

“Out of compassion I destroy the darkness of their ignorance. From within them I light the lamp of wisdom and dispel all darkness from their lives."
–Bhagavad Gita

The Canine Gandhi: Cats, Dogs and Interspecies Communication

“Thousands of years ago, cats were worshipped as gods. 
Cats have never forgotten this.”
–Unknown Author

I need to tell you about something remarkable, that, if you think about it, has amazing implications.

We have a new little kitten. An eight-week-old little girl, and already a brave explorer who wants to play with everyone. Interestingly, she is already strongly right-handed. (Yes there is clear evidence of handedness in most mammals, and even some fish. But in cats, dogs and horses it’s not always clear until they are a little older than this.)

The other cats are not best pleased by this turn of events. After all this is their house, even if they do have to put up with the occasional human and a large mobile rug called Shannon. Shannon is an enormous dog of questionable pedigree but extremely calm disposition, who just hates any kind of noise or commotion: she is the original gentle giant.

The humans in the house are tolerated only because they are the suppliers of food, treats and comfy laps.

After all, as an unknown author once pointed out,
“Dogs have owners. Cats have staff.”

Little kitten thought that with Shannon fast asleep on the floor, it would be fun to play with another cat called Hannah. Now Hannah’s an older and very dominant cat who survived in the wild for a year. She didn’t take kindly to the small ball of fluff skipping toward her. Little kitten did not have the wit to understand that Hannah’s taut, crouched posture and narrowed eyes were not an invitation to a game, but preparation for the pounce that would quickly generate a kitten-shaped snack. We were about to intervene when something remarkable happened.

Shannon, who had been busily stacking ZZZZZs, got up shambled forward and put her enormous head between cat and kitten. No sound was made. She didn’t look at either of the protagonists. She was just like a great big bouncer getting between a couple of drunks in a bar.

She just stood there, unmoving and implacable. Like the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, "You shall not pass!"

After a few moments the kitten realized that there’d be no way through, and went off in search of one of her toys. And Hannah cat saw that kitten tartar was off the menu. She slunk off to go and groom herself.

With which Shannon went back to her spot, lay down and promptly fell asleep again. She was soon back to a dream that involved a lot of running.

There can be absolutely no doubt about Shannon’s intent. She wanted to keep the peace, and she woke from sleep to do so. It’s not the first time that she’s protected the cats from harm.

Late at night a couple of weeks ago, we couldn’t get her to come in the house. She kept running back outside and growling. Very odd for a sweet natured creature who normally always comes running when called. It was only when I went outside for a third time that I realized that I’d been a bit slow. A few feet away was a large feral cat that we’d not seen before. He had Hannah cornered against a pillar and Shannon was trying to protect Hannah and chase the away the interloper.

As soon as the dumb humans got out of the way, Shannon saw the gatecrasher off the premises and escorted Hannah back into the house.

These can’t be unique examples of inter-species communication. Do you have either anecdotes or research to share?

“Always remember, a cat looks down on man, a dog looks up to man, but a pig will look man right in the eye and see his equal.”
–Sir Winston Churchill (English Statesman, British Prime Minister, 1940-1945 and 1951-1955, and, in 1953, Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, 1874-1965)

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Taking the Measure of a Society

“You don’t have to be big to be great.” — Sholom Aleichem (a.k.a. Solomon Rabinowitz, a.k.a. “The Jewish Mark Twain,” Russian-born American Yiddish Writer, 1859-1916)

How do we really take the measure of a society? How do we decide whether it is compassionate and great? Is it just a subjective, culture-bound opinion? I have faced this question on many occasions when doing interviews and having meetings in which I am advocating for the mentally ill. I have seen are many different criteria for trying to evaluate a society and a country:

1. The way in which a society treats its youngest and oldest citizens;

2. How a society honors its dead;

3. What opportunities it offers to its citizens and for people who come to the country and join the society;

4. How it behaves toward other countries;

5. The leaders it chooses to follow.

All of those are correct. But I would like to suggest that we should expand on those.

For me:  “The true measure of a society is how it treats its weakest members.”

For this is a measure of how far a society has progressed from a dog-eat-dog dominator model toward a more egalitarian partnership model. I have previously described my admiration for the work of Riane Eisler, and in my book and CD program Healing, Meaning and Purpose, I dedicate a whole chapter to ways of applying and expanding on some of her work.

I was once speaking to a Minister of Health in another country, and he expressed the view that providing care for the mentally ill was not the responsibility of government, and that they were simply a drag on the country’s economy. I politely but firmly disagreed, and was able to show him that providing good quality compassionate care for the mentally ill was not just the right thing to do, but it could also have a positive impact on his country’s bottom line. It happened that we were in a Buddhist country and he had a small image of the Buddha in his office, with some incense in front of the statue. At the end of my presentation I used a quotation attributed to the Buddha:

“In separateness lies the world’s great misery; in compassion lies the world’s true strength.”

When I talk about the advantages of an expanded, five dimensional model of thinking about people and their interactions, it is exceedingly practical. Many of the same things that are good for individuals are also good for society as a whole. That seems such an obvious statement, but when you think it through and apply my same principles of personal integration to integrate relationships and to produce an integrated society, the results can be remarkable.

“Compassion is the chief law of human existence.” — Fyodor Dostoevsky (Russian Writer, 1821-1881)

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