My First Love

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Mom and me


This sucks! We’ve been sheltering-in-place for 2 weeks and there’s at least another month to go. Adding to the COVID drama is the fact that
I’m at a high risk for getting an infection because of heart disease. Sandra and the girls have imposed an extra level of stay at home orders on me. Being fenced in is driving me crazy, literally.

CNN, MSNBC, and social media are making the noise deafening. But I can’t stop paying attention. With all of that going on, I still have heart failure. I’m still on the transplant list, just with an added twist. If I get called soon, I’ll be in surgery and recovery with no family physically by my side. My mind swirls and the anxiety demons dance.

But, I’ll be okay. Fate prepared me for this moment. I’ve managed the physical and mental health challenges of heart failure by following doctors’ orders and trusting in faith, hope, and love. The physical part is easy. Getting through the mental stuff is another thing. That’s not so easy.

Uncertainty is scary. Nearly a decade later, I still get nervous if I feel something in my chest area that doesn’t seem right. The spiritual journey I’ve been writing about has been helpful. It has taught me how to mentally and emotionally deal with the unknown. God, Jesus Christ, St. Paul the Apostle, and the Buddha have all inspired me to put things into perspective.

If the uncertainty of COVID-19 is causing you to be anxious, nervous, or out of sorts, now is a good time to go on your own exploration to learn how you can better mentally manage the current crisis and deal with future events that are out of your control. There are all kinds of ways to do this. For people who are religious, delving deeper into your faith will help. If religion isn’t your thing, meditation or mindfulness works wonders. 

It really doesn’t matter how you go about it. They’re are all based on some form of the same principles of faith, hope, and love. My journey has a definitive Catholic/Christian bent. I’m a big reader, so I studied further into the traditions I had known since I was a kid. For almost a decade, the power of these ideas has given me a more profound view of life.

I’ve written many posts about faith and hope. They’re the foundation for what St. Paul the Apostle called the greatest of the three: Love. To understand how love impacted my journey, I turned to the definition of love described in the book,  The Four Loves, published by Christian philosopher C.S. Lewis in 1960.

The author describes Affection as the first of four loves. It’s the kind of love among parents and their children, siblings, and other blood relatives. It’s one of the strongest bonds we have as humans. Lewis writes that affection is the “less discriminating of loves.” In other words, the bond is so strong that it overshadows nearly any fault or deficiency of a loved one.

The instant a parent sees a newborn son or daughter is nothing less than magical. There is no better feeling of safety and comfort for a child than nuzzling up to mom. I’ve said that my spiritual journey started on the heels of my 2010 health crisis. In reality, it started much earlier. My spiritual education most likely began the moment I looked into my mom’s – my first love – eyes for the first time.

Research shows that there is a direct relationship between the love/affection of a mother and/or father and happiness. As such, suffering and pain caused by a conflict with or loss of a parent are disproportionately intense. On September 6, 1995, I experienced for the first time the devastation of loss related to affection. That’s the day that my father passed away. Eight years later, on December 5, 2003, my mom followed him to the grave. The emotional wreckage of her passing was even more extreme.

Mom was a woman of unwavering faith. Praying to God was her answer to suffering. “Con el favor de Dios“ (God willing) and “Si Dios quiere” (If that’s how God wants it) were her go-to solutions for just about anything. She believed that nothing, good or bad, happened by chance. God was always in control. “just pray, mijo,” she urged whenever doubt and uncertainty took control of my thoughts.

She was warm, loving, and encouraging. She taught me and my siblings, by way of example, about compassion and caring for the welfare of others. She taught us to recite the Lord’s prayer before bedtime and say “thank you God” before and after a meal. Church on Sunday wasn’t mandatory, but going to mass during holidays on the Catholic calendar was a must. Looking back on my journey, I think mom was more spiritual than religious. 

Her death was a great opportunity for me to start exploring the faith that helped her get through times of suffering. But, I passed on the chance. Right after her funeral, I immersed myself in work. On top of my day job, I participated in a company-sponsored executive leadership training program. I was literally working round the clock.

About a year later, my emotional health came crashing down. My doctor ultimately diagnosed me with anxiety disorder triggered by my mom’s passing. Another chance to explore spirituality came and went. I fully committed to understanding the condition. I was dedicated to the medication regimen and monthly therapy sessions.

I learned about mindfulness and the chemistry of anxiety. Within 6 months, I had everything under control, or so I thought. That seemed to do the trick, so I continued on with my futile quest to control destiny only by working hard. In 2010, fate again stepped in. Rebounding from such a horrific health experience led to a roller coaster of emotions.

With mom gone, Sandra filled the empty space in my life where faith was waiting to be discovered. She has the same unquestioning belief in God as my mom. Instead of, “just pray, mijo,” the new mantra was, “just pray, babe.” I wanted to believe that was the answer but still thought that fate was in my own hands. I wasn’t so sure that mom and Sandra were right about God being in control of everything

I had questions. Throughout history, millions of people have died fighting in the name of God. They go into battle blindly following orders from religious leaders. Not only that, we all know regular churchgoers who judge and preach to those who don’t do the same. These things didn’t sit well with me. I wasn’t able to separate God from organized religion.

I would ask religious friends how the church helped them. They answered with a canned response like, “Jesus died for my sins.”  I didn’t know what that meant and no one was able to explain it to me. My critical mind would rhetorically and sarcastically wonder “Why would I give my worries to someone who died almost 2,000 years ago because some guy at the pulpit told me to?

My understanding of the unknown and mystical has grown exponentially in the past 10 years. Mom’s love for me provided the fundamentals to understanding God. I just wanted to learn more, know more. Unfortunately, it took death knocking on my front door to inspire me to dig deeper. That when I embarked on an intellectual and spiritual journey supported by God’s grace.  

Believing that some things happen “just because” has carried me through the torturous uncertainty of heart failure. However, COVID-19 laid on top of heart failure is really trying my patience. But, my spiritual journey that started in my mom’s arms calms me and keeps me focused on what happens in the here and now.

I know that everything will work out, as my first love would say, “con el favor de Dios.” 

 

 

 

Love is Always the Answer

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“And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.” ~St. Paul’s 1st Letter to the Corinthians 13:13

***

My spiritual journey has been amazing! Every day, I travel to intellectual and mystical places that help me understand the power of God, the universe, the Creator or whatever one believes to be a higher power. I understand a little more about the ways of the cosmos and better appreciate life in this world. With each step on the path, I uncover new revelations that become more profound as I meander along.

St. Paul the Apostle, especially his First letter to the Corinthians, has been a major influence on that spiritual journey. I’ve written much about my understanding of faith and hope in the context of my life story. These reflections have strengthened my belief that accepting what we can’t control and managing what we can are the first steps toward finding inner peace. Over the next several posts, I plan to explore where love fits in.

St. Paul wrote in the language of his era. The ancient Greek word he used for love is generally characterized as giving of oneself for the sake of others regardless of the circumstance, otherwise known as “unconditional love.” Throughout my spiritual journey, I’ve contemplated deeply on the existence of unconditional love. Is it even possible? Can a human being truly love without conditions?

Love means different things to different people. Some people believe that love is necessary for life. Others associate it with giving to others and practicing unselfish acts. The word is often used when describing someone’s fondness for a sports team, food, book, movie, music, etc. British author and Christian philosopher C.S. Lewis, tried to make sense of it all in a ground-breaking book he published in 1960

 In The Four Loves, Lewis sheds light on these concepts and describes four categories of love: Affection, Friendship, Eros (Romance), and Charity (God’s Love)

Affection is the kind of love between parents and their children, siblings, and other blood relations. This is one of the strongest forms of love that most of us are blessed to experience. Since it’s bound together by bloodlines and relatives, Lewis believes that 90% of a person’s happiness is related to affection. For that same reason, the suffering and pain caused by family friction is disproportionately intense.

Friendship is driven by choice, rather than built-in family love. Sharing things in common brings people together as friends. All of these commonalities and circumstances of meeting seem to happen by coincidence. But, with God in control, nothing happens by chance. According to Lewis, “friendship is the instrument by which God reveals to each of us the beauties in others.” 

Eros is tricky. Anyone who has been “in love” knows that to be true. When we think of romantic love, the warm and fuzzy feelings of happiness, butterflies in the stomach, and hugs and smooches come to mind. Potential for jealousy, power struggles, and possessiveness can complicate matters and doom a romantic relationship. The phrase, “For richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, ‘til death, do us part” is the true meaning of Eros.

Charity is the most powerful form of love. This is the kind of love God has for humanity. There are no strings attached. For Christians, the Passion story illustrates how love can change the world. God allowed Jesus to be tortured and humiliated on the road to his crucifixion so that the account could shine a light on God’s message about charity and giving of oneself for the sake of others. In St. Paul;’s letter, God calls on us to act on our better instincts.

At no moment in my lifetime has His call to action been so important. The COVID-19 crisis has all of us on edge. Public health experts tell us that social distancing will slow down the spread of the virus. That means that we have to give up many of the things that make us happy. No eating out, no going to the movies, no working out at the gym, no watching March Madness. As the days, weeks, and maybe months wear on, we’re sure to become irritable and increasingly selfish.

Now is the time to reflect on and practice love in all of its forms. Inasmuch as we want and need the affection of family, we must be vigilant to follow public health guidelines, especially with loved ones who are at a higher risk of infection. Friendships can and should continue to flourish despite not being able to connect in person. Romance must make do in sickness and in health without hugs and kisses.

Most of all, charity must thrive in these most uncertain of times. Share those precious necessities at the grocery stores with fellow shoppers. If you have a common cold or flu symptoms, stay home and heal instead of flooding emergency rooms at the expense of sicker patients. Check and double-check your information sources before sharing with friends and family to prevent unnecessary worry and panic. Major TV and radio networks and newspapers are your best bet.

When the dark clouds of uncertainty start gathering and force us to make difficult choices, love is always the answer. With my life story serving as a backdrop, I look forward to sharing my thoughts on the meaning of love in the coming weeks. In the meantime stay healthy!

 

We got this!

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We got this!

Wash your hands regularly.

Stay 6 feet away from each other.

Avoid crowds of 10 or more people.

***

On June 28, 2010, doctors were puzzled about why my lungs were starting to shut down. For about a week, I was wearing one of those clear masks with oxygen flowing into my nose. That wasn’t working anymore. They escalated my treatment to the next level. A pulmonologist placed Bilevel Positive Airway Pressure (BiPAP) headgear over my head, nose, and mouth. I felt claustrophobic. The sound of air rushing into my lungs was deafening.

The BiPAP strategy only lasted about 24 hours. My lungs were suffocating, desperate for oxygen. Over the course of 10 days, the critical care team had ruled out every possible diagnosis for the breakdown in my breathing. They needed to buy more time to figure out what was causing the lungs to fail. Doctors decided to intubate, sedate, and paralyze me.

Intubation is a process that includes placing a tube into the patient’s mouth and down the throat to send oxygen directly into the lungs. Surgeons use this procedure to ensure that the patient is breathing during surgery. It’s very uncomfortable, so being in deep sleep is necessary. To make sure my body was completely still, paralytic medicine was added to the cocktail that flowed from IV bags into my bloodstream.

When the doctors explained to me why they recommended taking these extreme measures, I was scared, anxious, and on the verge of panic. After Sandra and I peppered them with a barrage of questions, I knew that it was the right thing to do. Doctors ultimately treated me for Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome. The summer of 2010 was a wily and wooly ride to be sure, especially for my family. It all worked out. God’s will and a talented healthcare team saved the day.

I write often about the heart attack in 2010 and how it changed my life and worldview in a spiritual and practical way. I haven’t shared as much about the lung failure episode. It was an awful time for my family. Recovering after over 100 days in the hospital (including 6 weeks in the ICU) was the most difficult time in my life. No one who experienced that time wants to relive it. The memories are still fresh and vivid in our minds.

Nevertheless, I’ve been looking back on that chapter of my story for the past few days with hope. Reliving the summer of 2010 reminds me of how a community can overcome challenges with the power of faith and prudent action. Those who occupied the waiting room inspired many others to virtually join them in prayer. Heeding doctors’ advice, Sandra made wise decisions about my care. 

Reflecting on that time has given me hope that working together we can conquer Coronavirus in the same way. 

St. Paul the Apostle teaches us that God says, “My grace is sufficient, my power is made perfect in weakness.” God is telling us not to stress out trying to control what we can’t, especially during troubling times. We can’t control that the virus exists. We can’t control how other people react. We can’t control the false information that’s spreading on social media just as fast as the virus. 

Having faith is letting go of what we can’t control and focusing on what is within our power. Grace in the Biblical sense relates to the gifts God provides to each of us. He gave us the power to think and analyze. Let’s use that gift. Despite the seemingly hopeless news doctors shared with me and Sandra in 2010, we knew that we had no control over the fact that I couldn’t breathe. Using the gifts of thought and analysis, we put our faith in the doctors’ advice.

Today, as a community, we are facing what appears to be a desperate health crisis. Santa Clara County has directed its residents to stay home for 3 weeks, except to access essential needs like food and medical care. Now is the time to use common sense to make educated decisions based on recommendations from experts. 

County public health leaders took unprecedented action to combat the Coronavirus for the same reason doctors made extreme efforts to fight my lung failure 2010. They need to buy time to figure out exactly what kind of threat the virus poses. Time will give officials the ability to determine how many people are infected and allocate resources to hospitals where they’re needed. 

Washing hands frequently, staying 6 feet away from others, and avoiding crowds is smart advice. We tend to panic and lose sight of those three simple directives. Going to the store daily to stock up on items we already have and rushing to the emergency room at the slightest sniffle is contrary to guidance from health professionals. Standing in line next to others doing the same is even more dangerous. Don’t panic. Follow advice. Be smart.

Sandra, the girls, our extended family and friends, and I learned so much about managing crises in 2010. Perhaps the most important lessons were the power of faith and thoughtful decision-making. Not only did faith and wisdom carry us through that horrific summer, but they were also the cornerstones of getting through another health scare 8 years later. 

As days of uncertainty about the Coronavirus wear on, my family has decided to hunker down with faith and intelligent thinking. This plan has worked for us time and time again. I highly recommend that everyone try it out for the next few weeks. In God’s time, this crisis too shall pass. We got this!

 

 

Face Fear With Faith, Hope, & Love

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The news has been pretty stressful during the past week or so. Coronavirus is dominating the headlines. The country is in crisis mode. Public health officials are scrambling, education leaders are closing schools, and event organizers are canceling public gatherings. The president isn’t helping calm the country. He’s clueless as usual, too focused on himself. He’s having a hard time telling the truth. We don’t know what’s going on.

Coronavirus is new. No one really knows what to expect. It’s like a wildfire out of control. Anxiety and fear is spreading faster than the disease itself. Health experts tell us that the best prevention is washing hands regularly, avoiding physical contact with others, and staying away from crowded places. While that should slow down the expansion of the virus, worry and panic continue to grow.

Soap, hand sanitizer, toilet paper – toilet paper! – are flying off store shelves. People are panicking as if Armageddon is upon us. The numbers don’t seem to reflect the level of alarm, at least for now. As I’m writing this post, there are over 1,500 diagnosed cases and 32 confirmed deaths in the United States. By comparison, 365,914 Americans died of coronary heart disease in 2017 according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC). 

A quick analysis of the data shows that heart disease is a much bigger threat. In fact, heart problems kill more Americans than anything else. Nevertheless, Coronavirus is public enemy #1 right now. It’s the fear of the unknown that has catapulted the virus to the forefront. Yesterday, during my morning walk, I saw a guy wearing a surgical mask walking out of McDonald’s. A New Yorker cartoon came to mind. Actually, the irony with heart disease was kind of funny.

With all that said, Coronavirus is a serious matter. It’s untreated growth is a danger to all of us. Most people – younger and healthier folks – will get through this crisis just fine. Older people and those with pre-existing chronic diseases are at a higher risk of getting really sick and succumbing to the virus. It’s no surprise that heart failure tops that list. That puts me in the crosshairs of the illness. 

I’m no stranger to living with disease knocking on my door every day, so I’m good at doing what the docs advise. Other than good hygiene and smart interactions with others, there’s not much more we can do as individuals to cure Coronavirus. We have to leave that to scientists and public health experts. They’ll figure it out soon enough. Meanwhile, the virus continues to wreak havoc on our sense of security. 

News about the virus is pretty scary. Psychologists tell us that worrying about the unknown and losing sleep over things we can’t control are parts of our evolutionary DNA as humans. This trait allows us to focus on solving whatever needs fixing. That’s a good thing. Unfortunately, if we lack the expertise, ability, or resources needed to remedy what ails us, evolution hasn’t given us the tools to separate that reality from the anxiety that comes with the unknown.

While the Coronavirus has contaminated more than 1,500 Americans (and counting), fear of the virus has infected millions more. Cable news and social media are infecting people with worry around the clock. What should we do when nature doesn’t give us the mechanism to detach our inability to change what we can’t control from the fear that swirls through our minds in uncontrollable situations?  

My decade-long health crisis and subsequent spiritual journey have provided some answers for me. I started this blog six years ago to share my story with the hope that it will help others endure life challenges. The project has taken me to places I didn’t even know existed. As we’re in the throes of Corona-mania, my journey has given me the wisdom and tools to be measured and calm as fear rises around me.

Let’s start by listening to the experts. This is perhaps the most valuable lesson I’ve learned. Scientists, doctors, and public health officials are telling us how to stay healthy and prevent the spread of the virus. WASH YOUR HANDS. DON’T TOUCH ANYONE. STAY AWAY FROM CROWDS. It’s the first thing you see on the CDC website. These folks are smarter than the rest of us. Try not to let social media, cable news, or friends who mean well take your mind to a frightening place.

Advice is best when it’s simple,  especially when it comes from people who know what they’re talking about. After the heart attack and lung crisis that changed my life in 2010, doctors told me that I could live a pretty good life if I stuck to a low-salt, low-fat diet, took meds as prescribed, and exercised regularly. Three simple things from some pretty smart people gave me a new lease on life.

That’s been the easy part. The hard part has been accepting the truth about my health and understanding that I have no control over my fate. Living life moment by moment instead of in the past or the future has by far been the most difficult part. After nearly a decade of reading, thinking, reflecting, and praying, I’ve come to terms with the first two. The third is and will always be a work in progress.

Faith, hope, and love have formed the foundation of my spiritual awakening and learning about the ancient philosophy of living in the present have added insight into managing life’s troubles. Faith is all about acceptance of what is. Hope is knowing that what happens is God’s will. Love is wholeheartedly serving God by serving others. I try to work on all three every day. Living in the here and now keeps my mind at peace instead of fretting over the past and worrying about the future.

What does all of this have to do with Coronavirus and the growing panic? Practicing faith, hope, and love will soothe your fears. If God isn’t your thing, try out the ancient Stoic philosophers or check out The Buddha. Go ahead, google St. Paul the Apostle, Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, Epictetus, or The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. The worst thing that can happen is that you get your mind off of the craziness in the world for a few minutes. The best thing that can happen is that you’ll realize that that’s the point