Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Importance of Love -- for our Health

I have this powerful memory of my (then) 7 year old son, in a hospital gown, with blood still stuck in his baby-fine sandy blond hair left from brain surgery earlier that week.  It was dark outside and our family was gathered around him, trying to keep his spirits up as he fought the pain.  Along with the monitors, creamy white walls and pastel privacy curtains, we were also surrounded by a ton of little stuffed animals and gifts from family, friends, church and even strangers.  There, in the middle of his 5th floor hospital room, in a uncomfortably hard -- but sturdy -- chair I watched as my son struggle to sit upright for the first time since his surgery. He sat and started to read the cards his classmates made for him that someone had dropped off while he was sleeping.  I will forever remember the happiness, love and the warmth I saw fill his tired soul as he read those simple handmade cards from his second grade classmates. One of the little girls even signed her name with 'Love, so-and-so'. In that moment the struggle to sit upright got a little less as he went on to read  (and giggled at) the jokes  the boys wrote and the kind words from the rest of the girls. 

The cards and all other little mementos of positive thoughts, letting him know he was surround by love, were just as important to his healing as anything else we were doing. They gave him power I couldn't alone; the doctor's couldn't, nor could his dad alone. It was almost a years' worth of months that accumulated a collective effort to not just heal Kevin through modern medicine, but also through love. I believe it worked. 

Since then, I have believed strongly that love can heal physical ailments and mental anguish. And science is proving it (love it when really smart people prove me right). An article in Scientific American this past July talks about how healthy relationships increase survival up to 50%. It mentions that, "Social support has been linked to lower blood pressure, and a diverse collection of contacts is associated with better immune system functioning. The list continues to grow, she says, now encompassing other bodily processes such as wound healing and inflammation."   

In a 2005 Newsweek article, Dr. Dean Ornish, author of The Spectrum also the founder and president of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute said, "… love and intimacy are at the root of what makes us sick and what makes us well. If a new medication had the same impact, failure to prescribe it would be malpractice. Connections with other people affect not only the quality of our lives but also our survival. Study after study find that people who feel lonely are many times more likely to get cardiovascular disease than those who have a strong sense of connection and community."   

There is little control to how your social structure holds up in times of crisis. But what we do have control of is who we decide to be when someone we know is facing a crisis. The outreach and kindness of the community that we live in was also a huge lesson in how to react when I see others facing their times of trial. It is my tendency to want to keep to myself, mostly out of fear of saying something wrong or offending and a bit of fear of having to endure another painful loss. Coupled with it is also so hard for me not to be the shy girl. It takes every ounce of confidence I have to overcome the decades of being initially shy. Now more than ever I see the importance of overcoming this. 

Love is complicated. 

In a newspaper a while back, within the Sexetera advice column, a person wrote in asking if they should end a relationship that had just begun because in the fall the guy returns to school. Mia's response I thought was adroit, "Let the relationship play itself out. If you two are meant to be together, it'll last and if you're not, well, at least you saw it coming. If you're smart, you'll enjoy getting to know this guy but not invest too many emotions until you see where things are heading. One way to do this is by investing in your own future as well as a potential love affair. Why not? He's looking out for himself by furthering his education. I hope you're doing the same." Steve, the other writer for the column asked, "What is wrong with getting hurt?" 

The point is that healthy, good, complex friendships and relationships are collectively a part of the happiness formula and a healthy life. There is a challenge and an art to balancing and blending a life with other adults. Throw in some kids and we are knitting a complicated design. It seems to me, if it all is handled with enough compassion and understanding, sprinkled with just the right amount of independence and dependence that our relationships with others have the capability to extend our lives, to keep us, and our loved ones, living healthy…. maybe even greater than anything else we do to improve our health. 

I recently had a nightmare about one of my children drowning. I woke up still feeling the loss even though that child is the one who woke me up from that dream. (I can't say he isn't wearing a life jacket even when he takes a bath.... Just sort of kidding.)   Loving anyone, even our own children, can make even the strongest of people feel vulnerable. 

There is an inherit risk when we give something  (or fear the loss). But most especially when what is given is something as precious as the influential emotion, love. I think it is interesting studies show when we don't (wisely) take that risk and say, "What's wrong with getting hurt?" we actually hurt ourselves more in the long run. How ironic.      


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