Choking on the Breath of Life
A Sermon by the Rev. Dr. C. Scot Giles to Countryside Church UU
Sunday, September 7, 2015 (Labor Day Sunday)
My sermon today is perhaps more psychological than spiritual, but in my world the two disciplines are closely related. On this Labor Day Sunday I’m going to talk about work, and the stress of work.
I expect that few of you have witnessed an autopsy. Theological students go through something called a CPE, or Clinical Pastoral Education, as part of our training. We are placed as a chaplain in a stressful situation such as a hospital, rehab center or community agency, closely supervised and challenged by senior colleagues. It can be a difficult and transformative experience, and a time of real personal change.
I did my CPE in a medical center and back in my day we were supposed to witness a surgery, a birth and an autopsy. This doesn’t happen anymore as the rules around medical privacy have changed, AND my observation is that contemporary theological students tend to have more delicate stomachs than in my day.
In my cohort we all got through the surgery without having to leave the room. None of us got through the birth observation (including me) and only about half of us got through the autopsy.
He was a middle-age man, or he had been. He was in good physical shape. His weight was appropriate, and he had keeled over and died at his desk while at work.
The suspected cause of death was a heart attack but the autopsy showed his heart was fine. In fact, no cause of death could be found. His body was completely healthy, except, of course, for being dead.
It’s now called Sudden Unexpected Death Syndrome. We are seeing it more an more. It’s become common enough that the International Codes for Disease published by the World Health Organization has given it a code number for medical records—R 96.0.
In Japan it goes by the name of Karoshi, and they translate that as “Death by Overwork—Occupational Sudden Death. It is literally choking on the breath of life—trying to do so much that your activity destroys you.
First described in medical literature in 1969, Karsohi became so common in the 1980s that the Japanese Ministry of Labor began to track it. The report said “It was recognized that employees cannot work for 12 or more hours a day, 6–7 days a week, year after year, without suffering physically as well as mentally. It is common for the overtime to go unpaid.”
Does that job description sound familiar to any of you? How about we update it by adding the expectation of online availability 24/7, 365? Add that and you have the kind of work where antacid tablets become a major source of nutrition.
In Japan they do have a broader definition of what qualifies as Unexpected Death Syndrome. They include deaths from heart attacks and stroke, but a lot of deaths go unexplained as in the autopsy I witnessed.
There is a theory. You have two nervous systems in your body. The first is your Central Nervous System that you control consciously. The second is your Autonomic Nervous System which controls all the things that take place without your awareness—heartbeat, breathing, digestion, etc. which is most of what happens in your body.
Your Autonomic Nervous System has two branches. The first is the sympathetic system which basically controls the activation of some part of your body. The second is the parasympathetic system which controls relaxation of some part of your body. We see both in the beating of your heart—contraction, release, contraction, release…
Ideally these two systems should always be in balance, but situational stress can change that. If these two systems get out of balance you feel either anxious or fatigued. In a society where tranquilizers and antidepressant medications outsell aspirin, those feelings are common.
If these two systems get completely out of balance your heart will stop—Sudden Unexpected Death Syndrome.
In my office when a person is hypnotized, electronic equipment monitors the client’s Autonomic Nervous System as that tells me many things, including how deeply they are hypnotized.
Over the past few years when the computer spits out the client’s report, more and more, I see a lack of balance in the Autonomic Nervous System. I see it in about half my clients these days. In one case I sent the client directly from my office to the Emergency Room.
What do you think my computer would say about you if I hooked you up? Is your life in balance or are you so overstressed that you are choking on the breath of life?
Is your life so full of responsibility and care that you cannot enjoy Emerson’s “refulgent Summer”? Are you in danger? You might be.
Our World of Work
On August 16th of this year the New York Times published a blistering article about the employment practices at the online retailer, Amazon.com. Titled “Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace.” Here’s a quote:
“At Amazon, workers are encouraged to tear apart one another’s ideas in meetings, toil long and late (emails arrive past midnight, followed by text messages asking why they were not answered), and held to standards that the company boasts are “unreasonably high.” The internal phone directory instructs colleagues on how to send secret feedback to one another’s bosses. Employees say it is frequently used to sabotage others.”
One former employee interviewed described the workplace culture at amazon.com as “Amazon is where overachievers go to feel bad about themselves.”
Spokespersons for amazon.com have disputed the story, but it rings true to me. Worse I suspect the practices described in there article, such as forced employee ranking, encouraging anonymous complaints, and a complete disrespect for the private lives of employees, are metastasizing to other workplaces if they have not already.
Fortunately, this isn’t universal. There are good companies to work for that understand that happy employees are good employees. But we’ve all heard of places that are white-collar sweatshops where overlords maintain control by fear and intimidation. Places where the only acceptable status report to your boss is something along the lines of:
All targets met,
All customers satisfied,
All systems fully operational,
All staff keen and well motivated,
All pigs fed and ready to fly.
Such a life cannot be part of God’s plan, however you understand God. It cannot possibility be a spiritually fulfilled life. It becomes an unholy thing.
Many of you know I am a Consulting Hypnotist. You probably don’t know that since the 1940s hypnotism has been a union occupation with the AFL-CIO. As we all work for ourselves we don’t engage in collective bargaining. Instead, we are part of the AFL-CIO as we need the legislative clout to protect ourselves from encroachment by other healthcare professionals.
On the Advisory Board of the National Guild of Hypnotists I carry the Legislation and Governmental Concerns Portfolio, and that makes me a union operative. They sent me for training at the George Meany Campus of the National Labor College just outside Washington DC. The history of work was interesting because it documented that people have never in human history worked harder than we do today.
When you count up all the festivals and feast days, you discover that the medieval peasant—a sharecropper working in His Majesty’s fields had one day out of every three off. A third of the time! In the Middle Ages! People have never worked harder than we do now in America. Is it any wonder that stress-related illnesses are like a modern plague?
The Biochemistry of Stress
When you are stressed you body produces a hormone called cortisol. It is a precursor hormone. When it is released it causes a whole host of physical changes.
When you are happy, your body produces a different hormone called DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone), It likewise produces a host of physical changes in your body, all of which are good.
In fact, if you are suffering from any sort of serious or chronic medical condition everything I’ll try to teach you would be to maximize your production of DHEA, because that is what triggers physical, mental, emotional and spiritual healing and resilience.
But there is a problem. The half-life of the stress hormone cortisol is 12 hours. That means when you have a negative reaction, 12 hours later, half of the cortisol is still in your body. That’s why when you try to go to sleep at night after a stressful day you have trouble. Half the cortisol is still in your blood acting as a stimulant.
It takes 5 half-lives, or 60 hours for all of that cortisol to extinguish. So when you get stressed it casts a biochemical shadow in your body that stretches out 60 hours.
When you have too much of the stress hormone in your body you are actually cortically inhibited. That means you are not exactly the brightest crayon in the box. The mistakes you will make, even with the best of intentions, will be haunting you for some time.
Unfortunately, the half-life of the renewing hormone DHEA is very brief—15 to 38 minutes. That’s why, when you get stressed you tend to stay that way. When you feel good, it doesn’t last.
In the human body feelings travel faster than thought. When you have a negative experience the emotional result is almost instant. Then, you think about it and those thoughts might give you a different perspective. But by the time you’ve had those thoughts the cortisol has already been produced and released into your blood.
You can’t work your way out of stressful situations. The work just produces more cortisol which only increases your perception of stress, inhibits your thinking and you find yourself trapped. The only way to win this game is not to play.
But there is something you can do to prevent that whole cycle from getting started, and on this Labor Day Sunday I can’t think of anything more appropriate to talk about.
Your Have Choices
A thirsty cowboy walks into a bar. The bartender comes over and asked “Do you want a drink?”
“What are my choices?” says the cowboy. “Why, yes or no” says the bartender.
The point of that silly story is that most of us have more choices than we realize, we just don’t think about that. Had the cowboy asked the bartender “What’s the menu?” he would have gotten a very different answer than he did get. We need to think about the wide range of choices we do have.
We are not really passive victims of circumstance. We just often do not recognize the choices that we do have. We can’t control what other people do or always control what happens to us, but we can control what bait we will rise to.
The first step, I have found is to define what success means to you. In my observation—both of myself and my clients—many of us have let other people define success. It means living in the right neighborhood, having the right sort of car, being able to boast about things, and to provide a softer life for our family.
In service to that, we get into debt up to our eyeballs, ruin our health, spoil our kids, and make ourselves unhappy. Maybe a different definition of what a successful life could be is in order.
About a year ago a Japanese woman named Marie Kondo published a book that quickly climbed to the top of the New York Times Best Seller List. It was titled "The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” which I think is too trite a title for a really good book.
It’s a book about personal organization. She has taught personal organization for many years in Japan and has a large following. What is remarkable about her thought is that the people who follow it tend to keep on using it for long periods of time. They don’t just try it out for awhile and then go back to disorderly ways.
Her system is based on three rules.
First, go through all of the things that you have and get rid of anything you don’t really love. Give the other stuff away, throw it out or sell it to some sucker. But don’t keep anything you don’t love.
Second, find a place in your home for everything you love. Everything you own should be something that you love, AND it should have a place to live in your home.
Finally, when you use something, do not put it down. Put it away.
That’s it. Reduce your possessions to the beloved essentials. Have a place to store the beloved essentials. Always return a beloved essential to its home when you are finished using it. If you do that there will never be a stack of stuff, a pile of files or anything disorderly in your home.
As I’ve played with her ideas I realize that her advice is applicable to more than just things. We can make the choice to apply it to feelings, memories and people as well. I started to teach this in my clinics for cancer patients and watched the stress level of the participants drop amazingly, even as measured on objective testing.
Mentally go through your definition of success. Keep only the parts of it you really love. If you drop the things you don’t really care about, you might discover that the things you love about your life and not what you thought.
Mentally go through all of your relationships. As far as is possible, keep the relationships you love. Regard the others as less important, or perhaps even complete. Not that they were bad, not that they were mistakes, but simply that they are over.
Lindsay and I do this every New Year’s Day. Over a glass of wine we run the list of the relationships and activities we have, and ask ourselves about what sort of shape they are in. Do we need more or less time with those people? Is the relationship really over and it’s time to move on? What about our work? Do we need to put in more energy or less? What are will willing to sacrifice to balance things out? Etc.
I do this with emotional events too. I mentally go through my memories and recollections. While I can’t decide to forget things, I can decide not to dwell on things that I do not love. When a bad memory surfaces I find a way to distract myself and not dwell on it. I don’t want that cortisol to get into my blood because all it does is mess me up and increase my stress.
I don’t want to be laying on the mortuary slab at too young an age while the Medical Examiner looks puzzled and says “Darn if I know why he’s dead.” No thank you.
Make a choice to dwell on the memories and recollections you love and to change the channel in your mind when other memories or recollections intrude.
Decide that you will no longer try to get even with people who have harmed you, nor plot what to do to even the score. Use your mind to think about the memories and recollections you love. It’s your mind after all. It will follow your rules.
Have a place in your life for the people, memories and recollections you love. That is, make time for the good relationships and much less time for the other relationships. Make time for the activities your love.
Do something to remind you about the memories you love—I keep a list in my journal and a collection of positive mementos in my mediation area. I have a place for these things in my own life.
Curate your interior life so that you do not lose sight of the fact that your life is supposed to be for your benefit. While it is great to help out others, you should not be harming yourself in the process. If you are, maybe that job, the relationship, those responsibilities are not wise. Maybe a change of pace, a downshifting, a lightening of the load or a change in priorities are in order.
People will let you harm yourself in order to enrich themselves. But you do not have to let them.
Perhaps that concept is important enough that it bears repeating. Your life is supposed to benefit you. It’s good if it also benefits others, but primarily you are on this planet to have a fulfilling life yourself, according to the way you honestly define that.
A fulfilled life is a life where you are relaxed and happy. It might be successful by the standards of other people or not. We are here to breath deeply the breath of life. Not choke on it.
And that’s my sermon.