Monday, December 31, 2012

Moving Can Be Difficult

Maneuvering down the stairwell the two young men managed to put the corner of a piece of furniture right through the wall, leaving a jagged hole the size of my fist.  Two others learned too late the importance of counterbalance when moving several made-to-measure workstation counters.  Removing one from the dolly caused the other one to keel over, hitting the ground with a thunderous crack and rendering the counter useless.  Further mishaps included dropping custom-made wooden desks onto concrete, dragging fine furniture along exposed aggregate, laying fully laden metal file cabinets on their sides so that their drawers would never open or close again and tossing boxes carefully packed with computer equipment around like pillows.  At times it seemed to be more like the filming of a Three Stooges movie than a professional moving company doing its job.  It would not surprise me if the damage claim exceeded the fee payable to the movers.

Moving a small 20 person law office, even three blocks up the street, is a demanding feat.  Even when accomplished over Christmas break it is daunting and disruptive.  I have learned some things from this business move that seem applicable to my 2013 Parkinson’s “moving” challenges.
1.     If you intend to stay vibrant, dynamic and relevant as a business (or as a person), you must be prepared to grow.  While it is easy to stay put in one’s comfortable surroundings, previously chosen premises, or patterns of living, will not typically remain appropriate.  Moving often becomes a must.  For people with Parkinson’s it is a necessity if we expect to maintain a reasonable quality of life.

2.     Moving requires significant advance planning.  In our case, changing addresses required almost a year.  Finding out what we really wanted was critical.  The planning needed to reflect the priorities of the people occupying the premises.  There is no one-size-fits-all.  We needed to know what was important, not just desirable?  What was realistically doable?  How would we make the transition from where we have been to where we want to be?  Who needs to be involved in that process?  What resources are required?  All of these observations and questions apply to my own Parkinson’s disease planning.

3.     No matter how well-planned, a move rarely happens without difficulty.  Things aren’t quite ready on time.  Aspects of the transition go slower than anticipated.  Even our new offices have the inevitable blemishes and imperfections, especially after the movers have their way.  Moving is very hard work if done correctly.  And there will be some disappointments along the way.  The same is true for people with PD.  Despite our best efforts, satisfaction is never guaranteed.  But then what is the alternative?
Transition, moving, is often painful.  But the alternative is not worth considering, at least not for very long.  There may be times when inertia sets in and the challenges of change simply seem too much to deal with.  However, looking back on our old offices and comparing to what we have now confirms the correctness of the decision to move.  Similarly, looking back on those days when my Parkinson’s disease made for increasingly cramped quarters, the solution was obvious: get moving.  Cheerless, purposeless, sedentary living is unacceptable.  We must move!  The reward is well worth the risk.
So for 2013 my personal theme will be “MOVE!”  No more drifting with indifference.  No more frustrated “I don’t care” answers to demanding questions.  To move will be hard work, regularly threatened by failure.  I may flounder from time to time.  But I will “move” in the year ahead; move to a better place in terms of my physical, spiritual, mental, emotional, relational, and even professional, quality of living.  How?  I am not sure yet.  Step one is to decide that the comfortable but cramped “old place” no longer suits my changing needs.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Parkinson's Disease: An Unexpected Journey

It was pure fantasy.  Old, almost classical, make-believe worlds populated by strange characters with even stranger names.  And yet it was stuffed full to overflowing with significance, like a stocking hung by the fireplace on Christmas morning.
The story is about an unassuming fellow, who enjoys his books, a warm fire, good food and casual times with friends.  He had lived what we would call a simple, comfortable life in which, apart from a celebration now and then, each day was predictable.  But the unpredictable happened.  Shock, frustration, denial and confusion flooded into this unsuspecting character’s life, and in the process swept away his innocence and uncomplicated existence. 
“The Hobbit” was written by J.R.R. Tolkien 75 years ago.  It has taken Hollywood that long to do justice to its imaginary tale.  Its story is both simple and complex, suitable for children (except the very young or overprotected) and challenging for adults.  It portrays both evil and good, but recognizes the shadow of one in the other.  It shows the wizardly wisdom of Gandalf happily coexisting with simplistic naïveté of Bilbo Baggins, the hobbit.  Courage and camaraderie combine to thwart the seemingly insurmountable destructive powers of darkness and despair.  But it was its subtitle, “An Unexpected Journey”, which led me to conclude this story could be an allegory for life with Parkinson’s disease.

Seven years ago my life was pretty simple.  Staring into the future as far as I could see it all looked predictable, even comfortable.  Little did I know then that my life was about to be figuratively and literally shaken to its very core.  I was totally unprepared and left reeling from the January 19, 2006 diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease.  Life would never be the same.  The path ahead became unpredictable, leading through fields of false hope, black nights of fear and into narrow tracks in the unknown.  At times I found myself lost and alone in what seemed like a maze of caverns. 
But the truth is that, like Bilbo Baggins, I would never exchange the unexpected journey, with its challenges, friendships and adventure, for a predictable, comfortable, stay-at-home life.  No, despite the many setbacks, I would not give up the invaluable lessons I have learned along the way.  Like Gandalf said when questioned about allowing Bilbo Baggins to come along on such a dangerous journey to challenge such a formidable foe.  Some believe, he said, that “it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love. Why Bilbo Baggins? Perhaps because I am afraid, and he gives me courage.” 
Indeed, “it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay.  Small acts of kindness and love.”  The power of Parkinson’s disease in my life has been held in check by the small, everyday deeds of my friends and family.  Their reassuring words and simple acts of kindness and love give me courage to continue fighting. 
Whatever your views about Christmas (whether you are the “Happy Holiday” type or something else), there is something compelling about the story.  A baby, gifted to humanity by God yet born to ordinary peasant parents, he was destined to hold evil in check and keep the darkness at bay through sacrificial acts of kindness and love.  Why?  Perhaps because when we are afraid he gives us courage. 
Perhaps you’re a little like me as I anticipate with some trepidation the New Year, 2013.  If you are, maybe reciting words of Bilbo Baggins will give each of us courage as we embark upon the path ahead.  “I am going on an adventure” makes more sense to me than “Auld Lang Syne”.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Does Pain Have Meaning?

The passenger jet slammed into the ground killing six people in the process.  But 96 survived due to miraculous flying, creative ingenuity, intense calm and, perhaps, an act of God.  Most credited the pilot of that flight for his pinpoint precision crash landing in an open field after an heroic display of aeronautical genius that was unlikely to be ever repeated.  But the real story recounted in “Flight”, a recent movie starring Denzel Washington, was about the pilot’s alcoholism, stubborn denial and reckless living.  Covering up the pain in his own life he caused inestimable suffering in the lives of those he cared about.  It was only because of the plane crash, and his own personal crash that followed, that he was able to come face-to-face with reality, with the meaning and importance of pain and the need to deal with it. 
The pain caused by Parkinson's is rarely discussed. It seems to be overshadowed by the tremor, stiffness and the other non-motor symptoms.  But the pain can be very real.  Painful cramping of leg or arm muscles, pain from distortion caused by dystonia, “frozen shoulder” pain and other results of muscular rigidity are but a few of the physical consequences of PD.  And then of course there is the psychological pain of misunderstanding, loneliness, rejection and the significant sense of loss of quality of life.  Pain comes in all shapes and sizes from acute to aching, chronic to intermittent, unbearable to inconvenient. 
Our society places a great deal of emphasis on alleviating pain.  In fact, a significant part of the pharmaceutical industry feeds our culture’s addiction to pain avoidance.  But does pain have importance and meaning? 
Victor Frankl was more than a psychologist, he was a prophet.  His basic theory, contrary to that of Freud, was that humanity has a primary need for purpose not pleasure.  He came to this conclusion in a Nazi concentration camp where prisoners suffered excruciating physical and psychological pain.  Many of his fellow prisoners gave up hope in the face of almost certain extermination at the hands of their captors.  But Frankl found that the simple antidote was to believe that life had meaning.  There is purpose in the pain, even if it leads to death.  He determined that if he were to die it would be as a martyr, not a victim.  He said, “In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice”. 
Pain, loss, suffering, they all bring us face-to-face with some of the deepest questions we can ask.  Our persistent pursuit of pleasure can easily blind us to reality.  If pain is the greatest teacher, and there can be no building of character without pain, then when we experience pain we must learn how to suffer without self-pity or “sedation”.  Here are some principles I am grappling with in my own confrontation with pain.

1.     Pain is not the enemy.  It simply forces us to come to grips with its cause.
2.     Listen to your pain.  It is trying to tell you something important.
3.     Search for meaning in the pain.  Don’t give up until you find it.
4.     Pain leaves a legacy.  Choose for it to be characterized with courage.

At the end of the movie, the pilot, played by Denzel Washington, finally recognized that he could not run away, continuing to deceive himself and others.  To ignore the painful lessons of life is to live a lie, which is not to live at all.

“Endure and persist; this pain will turn to good by and by. 

Friday, December 7, 2012

Adapt, Adopt and Ad Lib

Life with Parkinson’s disease demands a great deal from its captives.  To avoid being sucked into the deep vortex of despair, swallowed by self-pity, banished from normalcy, we must be able to adapt, adopt and, when all else fails, ad lib. Let me explain.
5555.  There was no particular reason to choose that number, except perhaps that it was located in the middle of the screen of my iPhone, within easy reach of my slightly more reliable left thumb.  It also solved a developing difficulty.  My normal 4-number password required dexterity I could only rarely display.  I know, even healthy people have difficulty typing in their password correctly some of the time.  But multiply that times 10, along with the resulting exasperation and sense of ineptitude, and you have someone dealing with Parkinson’s disease.  Trying to unlock my iPhone one day in the presence of my friend, Carson, I explained my problem.  “I either hit the wrong button or, more typically, the right button too many times!”  This tremor-induced typo would result in the bold message, “Wrong Password.  Try again”, emblazoned across the top of the screen.  After the third or fourth time of being reminded how uncoordinated I had become, frustration, even anger, bubbled to the surface.  Stubbornly failing over and over again seemed unavoidable until my friend said, “Why don’t you make it same number.  That way you can hit it any number of times without getting a failure message flashing at you."  Painless adaptation.
It was 12:38 AM.  As usual, I had been able to fall asleep easily, but this time, as I had a few times before, I awoke after what amounted to a short power nap.  My right leg was throbbing and stiff, while my right arm seemed to compensate by shaking uncontrollably.  How do you ignore that disobedient duo, one cramped, the other flopping about like a flag on a brisk fall day. It was impossible to rest or to return to sleep.  I got up.  For a few minutes I walked aimlessly around the bedroom.  It seemed to provide some relief.  Fearing I would wake my wife, I found myself wandering around the house.  On one of my circuits I noticed the dusty treadmill in the corner of the TV room.  I remembered my wife suggesting I could use it to walk off my restless leg syndrome if it was too wet or cold walk outside.  In a few minutes my feet were hot from striding along the moving belt (I know, you are not supposed to go barefoot on a treadmill).  The cramping muscles began to loosen up and my shaking right hand calmed down considerably.  Within 20 minutes I was ready to head back to bed.  I adopted a new strategy.
Over the last few months I've learned to eat with my left hand. Ad lib. Improvisation.  Spontaneity.  Call it what you will, these words enlist our imagination, suspend our disbelief to allow us to reach for things we have never seen.  For most adults, creativity is a frightening exposure of the child within, the raw reality hidden deep in our souls.  People with Parkinson’s can easily feel chained down by their ever-expanding list of disabilities.  We sense the insidious and endlessly reminders of the disease as if it were an incessant tap, tap, tap, tap on the shoulder.  PD demands attention, insisting upon repetition; pills, therapy, rest then more pills.  But its boring refrain can be silenced from time to time.  When was the last time you tried something different?  Took a walk in the rain?  Drove home the long way?  Wrote a poem?  Asked a person about his or her tattoo?  Ordered something off the menu you had never eaten before?  Allowed yourself to make a frivolous, spontaneous decision?
Most of us are people of repetition, habits ingrained over the years.  Let’s face it, it works…for the time being.  We often suffer from narrowness of vision, shrinking horizons, and…well…boredom.  We could all use an attitude adjustment.  Let's be prepared to adapt, adopt and ad lib.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Trouble with Compliments

I felt completely out of place.  My shirt was drenched with sweat as I stood on the platform wearing the black gown of academic regalia, together with a bright blue and white collar.  The flowing garment reminded me of the colourful robe I had worn as a 12-year-old during my short stint singing alto in the Vernon First Baptist Church choir.  However, here the stage was filled with dozens of different gown designs and colors, which clearly meant something to the assembled professors who wore them, but to me presented no discernible pattern.  I imagined we all looked like a mismatched pack of penguins perspiring under the harsh performance lighting.  It was all quite uncomfortable.

A mistake must have been made.  I was an imposter.  No doubt that error would shortly be discovered and I would be plucked from the platform like a false feather hiding amidst the plumage of a peacock.  And yet all I saw was warm smiles that normally would have made me feel at ease.  It all seemed too strange to be real. 
I’ve always known that pride puts one on a pillar from which one is ever prone to plummet to disgrace.  Accolades and honours can so easily feed the insatiable appetite of egotism.  Acclaim and adulation create addictions and false realities.  What is more frightening is the fact that all of us, at some time or other, seek attention and applause to assuage our insecurity.  Despite our self-proclaimed humility the allure of the limelight casts its spell.  Five minutes of fame?  “Not me”, I delude myself. 
That’s the trouble with recognition.  It betrays our weakness, our need for appreciation…and maybe more.  In our eagerness to be accepted, acknowledged and approved of we become skillful at unobtrusively introducing our accomplishments in public.  Why?  Why must we be patted on the back?  Why must we, like children in the playground swinging high or running fast, proclaim, “Look at me.  Look at me”?  Why is it so difficult to deal humbly with victory and success, and shamelessly with defeat and failure?

As the challenges of Parkinson’s disease continue to mount, and others look on sympathetically, the battle between humility and hubris builds.  We seem to tightly clutch our titles and our trophies, anticipating anonymity.  Past pinnacles of success seem to crumble, replaced by crevices of self-doubt.  It is as if our shuffling, stiffening and shaking betray the clever schemes we use to hide our obvious inadequacy. 
Four weeks ago on that auditorium platform amidst professorial splendor, wearing my newly acquired academic regalia, an honorary doctorate of laws was conferred on me.  I was conflicted and confused.  Like most, I have a problem responding well to a compliment, let alone an honor such as this.  Sincerity and humility hung in the balance.  Self-evaluation of either proved impossible.  So I imagined the face of my departed Father smiling from the audience, even as my mother in the front row smiled in fact and shed a tear.  His approval was enough.  And when congratulations came I shook each hand as if it were my Dad’s, and heard his silent warning, “Now be careful lest you fall, son.”

Sunday, November 25, 2012

When Is It Time to Reconcile?

The two brothers could not look each other in the eye.  The older one did most of the talking, but all the while stared across the law firm’s boardroom table, past the people sitting opposite him, and out the 27th floor window.  It was as if he wanted to be somewhere far away, anywhere but in that room arguing about his father’s estate.

The younger brother, obviously the prodigal son who didn’t make it home to receive the “blessing” before his father died, constantly shifted in the expensive leather chair, played with the pen in his hand and looked down at the blank pad of paper in front of him.  He was nervous and uncomfortable as he was underdressed for the occasion. 
The siblings had different mothers, both divorced from their deceased father.  Largely through the choices of others, they shared little in common except the blood of their father flowing through their veins.  It was the estate of their father that brought them together, at least physically, into the same room.  It was the same discussion that drove them apart, tearing scabs off old scars and creating new wounds.  As harsh words were spoken by the lawyers representing each of the half-brothers, I wondered what their father would’ve thought had he been there.  Unintentionally, he had made a bequest to them of bitterness.  The boys, now emboldened and brash in the absence of their father, battled over money.  It was all that was left.

I had seen the drama dozens of times, just with different players.  Beneficiaries clinging to that which they felt entitled, even if it meant villainizing members of the family who remained.  In this case, the brotherly brawl had been bubbling to a boil for some time, both boys trash talking each other through the one person that separated them, the referee, their father.  With him gone, the half-brothers leaned into the long-anticipated fight fueled by anger and grief, loss and potential gain, feelings of guilt and entitlement.  The father had left a legacy of broken relationships that money could not heal.

Despite the fact that Parkinson’s disease is not typically fatal, it does bring one face-to-face with one’s mortality.  Perhaps it is because through PD one begins experiencing a sense of accelerated loss.  What do we do with the nagging reminder that life is fragile and fleeting?  I try to ignore it sometimes, like refusing to face the reality some mornings that I have to get out of bed.  Those mornings I feel like hitting the “snooze” button, burrowing under my blankets, closing my eyes and pretending that the demands and conflicts of the day don’t exist.  Hopelessly, I deny my reality. 
When it is my turn to bid farewell to my friends and family, will it ignite a powder keg of discontent?  Will my passing leave behind harmony or discord?  What can I do now to promote peace?  Reconciliation is a difficult journey to begin, let alone complete.  In truth, it may be an ongoing, sometimes painful, process without a certain conclusion.  It requires courage.  Like grasping the nettle, one must be prepared to withstand its sting.  To let it go is to suffer the bite but leave the weed to flourish.  If we are to sow seeds of peace and reconciliation, we must be prepared and persistent. 
How to start?  Begin by asking the right questions, and answering them honestly.  Whom have I wronged?  Who has hurt me?  Are there loved ones that I ache to see reconciled?  How do I begin being an agent of amity?  How can I convert conflict to concord?

From my experience and observations I have learned some things:
  • 1.     Embarking on a path of reconciliation demands humility.  That may mean a sincere apology or an admission of inadequacy.
  • 2.     The speed with which relational repairs take place will be determined consensually.  One’s own agenda and time frame cannot be imposed without imperiling the process.
  • 3.     One must be prepared to maintain consistency in commitments to restoring harmony in relationships.  Be prepared to have your motives challenged.
  • 4.     Healing of past hurts may result in more pain.  Tearing the scab from an old wound or a bandage from one hidden under it is likely to hurt...a lot.

The two brothers did not reconcile.  Each called “justice” to their aid, but the sadness in their eyes told me it gave them no comfort to be “right”.  Of course, the lawyers, trained for the battle, would fight on, continuing as they must to follow instructions and ultimately divide the spoils, remaining the only ultimate “victors”.  In litigation, every party loses.  It is only a matter of how much.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Are You a Person of Interest?

Have you ever Googled your own name and been amazed by the results?

My grandfather was not an intensely private person.  Nor was he a public figure.  However, he was known and respected in the small community of Vernon, British Columbia, Canada.  His name does not appear on the Internet.  My father followed his father’s footsteps, building on his reputation.  He was known for his hard work and respected for his integrity in the growing community.  But his reputation was not based on any notoriety.  There is little mention of him on the Internet.  When I was growing up in Vernon it was still a small town of under 10,000 people.  Despite similar upbringings as my forefathers, for better or for worse, my life story, the details of my work and even aspects of my private life are available at the present a button.  They may be researched by anyone with a computer and access to the Internet.  What difference does that make?
“Person of Interest” is an award-winning television program that highlights the pervasive nature and potential of the computerized surveillance we have on this very un-private planet.  The original season started with this description:

"You are being watched. The government has a secret system: a machine that spies on you every hour of every day. I know because I built it. I designed the machine to detect acts of terror, but it sees everything. Violent crimes involving ordinary people, people like you. Crimes the government considered irrelevant. They wouldn't act, so I decided I would. But I needed a partner, someone with the skills to intervene. Hunted by the authorities, we work in secret. You'll never find us, but victim or perpetrator, if your number's up... we'll find you".

When one simply looks around at the proliferation of security cameras and readily available personal information, this fictional drama series seems eerily close to reality.
A recent TED Talk by Jeff Hancock called “The Future of Lying” suggests that because of the ability to trace our deeds, our words, our stories, communicated by technological means we are more likely to be truthful.  The fact that our lives, to a greater or lesser extent, are captured and converted to data that can be retained indefinitely means that we can be caught “lying” more easily than ever before.

Like it or not, each of us is unwittingly writing a comprehensive autobiography comprised of digital information readily available to anyone and everyone.  As in “Person of Interest”, this information may be accurate or misleading, used for good or evil, but there is no escaping the fact that it exists.
As a person with Parkinson’s disease, I feel confronted with the reality that, whether I write this blog or seek to escape into obscurity, I am writing my own story, recording my own self-titled, digitized song.  Perhaps it shouldn’t matter, but the fact that my “life story” will be more public than the histories of my father or grandfather leads me to ask, “What kind of story will it be?”

Will the predominant theme of my story be ‘me’ or others?  Will it be characterized by self-indulgence or self-sacrifice?

Who will have benefited from my life?  Who will have been harmed by the way I have lived?

Will I have fought for the right or silently condoned the wrong?  If the truth were known (as it may well be) will I have lived with integrity, courage and grace?  Or will I be seen as having given in to a value-neutral, insipid and hypocritical attitude?

When my digital footprints on this globe are accurately assembled, will the journey they mark out have been worthwhile?  When my less-than-perfect pathway has been technologically memorialized for others to view, will it be worth following?  Will I have lived intentionally, or by simply existed accident?

When someone Googles my life and struggles with PD, my highs and lows, will the results encourage others or leave them with a sense of hopelessness?

We may not ask these questions of ourselves, but others will surely ask them for us.  Our lives do matter.  Each of us is inevitably a “Person of Interest”.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Lest We Forget

It was typically a cold day on November 11th.  Each year by 10:30 AM, a variegated crowd had gathered in Cenotaph Park located in the centre of my home town.  The park was simply and correctly named; the focus of attention being on the only structure in the park, the gray concrete cenotaph.  It stood some 10 feet tall and, other than inscriptions referencing the Great War, World War II and the Korean conflict, its only adornments were brass plaques filled with names.  There were 192 in total; all men.  What surprised me then (and more so now) was that 124 of them, fully two thirds, died in the First World War.  The population of my small town at the beginning of that war was around 3000 people.  Assuming 25% were men eligible to fight, one of six did not return from the trenches of Europe.  Although the word “cenotaph” literally means “empty tomb”, it notionally represented the final resting place for many a World War I hero.
I was there, more from a sense of duty than desire, with a few other Cubs and Scouts who had gathered in our uniforms, which were mostly covered up by winter parkas.  I begrudged spending even a small portion of a school holiday shivering in the cold looking ridiculous in my Boy Scout uniform.  The sea cadets looked better than we did as they had the benefit of woolen, navy blue pea coats.  Our only role that morning was to stand at attention and make our three fingered salute as old men tenderly carried wreaths to lay on the cenotaph steps.  Having no soldiers in my family I did not understand the tears that escaped the deeply saddened eyes and crept down those wrinkled faces of the old soldiers that passed by.  The old men stood weeping as the Last Post trumpet solo mournfully moved through the pine trees in the park.  Although I did not understand it, I never doubted that the pain they felt was real and the memories vivid.  It was only later, through my son who served in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, that I began to understand how a sense of undeserving and guilt broke through the veneer of battle hardened hearts at times like that. 
The idea of sacrifice seems foreign to most of us today.  It is so easily misunderstood in this “I” culture.  We have become sceptics who question the concept of sacrifice.  Self-interest reigns supreme.  But can it be said that anything worthwhile is achieved without sacrifice?  Surely, the more valuable the virtue, the more meaningful the endeavour, the greater the sacrifice that must be made.  “Sacrifice” can be defined as the gift of something precious as an offering in exchange for something even more valuable. 
What makes a sacrifice worthwhile?  Undoubtedly, an essential consequence of any sacrifice of significance is that it be remembered.  “Lest We Forget” is the refrain of the 1897 Rudyard Kipling poem, “Recessional”.  It was a warning against a prideful attitude of forgetfulness about the sacrifices of those who won our privileges.  Let me quote the third stanza:

Far-called our navies melt away—
On dune and headland sinks the fire—
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget.

Worthy goals will always be won by sacrifice, and lost by failing to remember that. 
Today we are called to remember the sacrifices of those who fought for us and the greatest values known to humanity.  The words of Martin Luther King Jr. echo my sentiment.

“Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable... Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.” 

Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Power of Personal Pronouns

Commencement Address - November 3, 2012 - Trinity Western University

 It was January 19, 2006, a Thursday.  Vancouver was chilly, but not really cold.  And it was dry for a change.  All in all, not a bad day for the “Wet Coast”.  I had no warning that it would be a critically important day in my life. 

It was the day I was told I had Parkinson’s disease.  I was 53 years old, at the height of my legal career.  I was doing what I loved and felt that I was making a difference, like leading the Trinity Western legal team and its successful battle all away to the Supreme Court of Canada..  I was part of a thriving law firm and a tremendous team of legal professionals, trusted problem solvers working with the best clients any lawyer could ask for.

Life had not been without incidents, but none of them had left permanent scars.  I had experienced an idyllic upbringing in the countryside apple orchards near Vernon, British Columbia.  My parents were the best I could have asked for.  My siblings and extended family put up with me more than most would have done.  In 1970, God brought me to what was then Trinity Junior College, where I found a much deeper faith, a love for learning, an opportunity to serve in student leadership and a chance to play collegiate sports, not to mention meeting the wonderful woman that I have now been happily married to more than 38 years.  I had three kids, each of whom has been a special gift to us.  In addition, I had, and still have, wise and caring mentors like Dr Jim Houston and Benno Friesen.  I had, and still have, friends who I knew I could depend on, regardless, and lifelong accountability partners in David Bentall and Carson Pue.

Life had been pretty much a dream come true until that day in 2006.  When Renae and I walked out of the neurologist’s office that day, I was surprisingly calm (maybe in full-blown denial, but calm).  I somehow knew something special was in process.  My life was not a dream that was becoming a nightmare.  Certainly, there was fear, but there was also excitement and anticipation.  I felt totally inadequate for the challenges that lay ahead, but I also felt completely at peace.  Somehow, I knew God was in this.  He was opening my eyes in ways I could never have imagined, providing perspective and opportunities that could only be achieved through my loss, my weakness, my failure.

January 19, 2006, was the day I began to learn a secret: the difference between illness and wellness.  Let me come back to that.

I had known a fair amount about Parkinson’s disease before 2006.  My father had suffered from the disease, and ultimately died from its complications in 2009.  It’s a complicated disease, and every one of its 10 million “victims” worldwide seems to experience it differently.

Besides being a progressively, degenerative, neurological disease for which there is no known cure it has a variety of debilitating manifestations.  Its most typical symptoms are a tremor, stiffness, loss of balance, a shuffling gait and other motor malfunctions.  But along with those are a kaleidoscope of potential non-motor consequences such as incredible fatigue, depression, anxiety, insomnia, and possibly, the scariest of all, loss of cognitive function.  And then, as if to add variety, there are unusual side effects for some people with Parkinson’s.  For instance, my startle reflex became heightened, I stopped swinging my right arm when I walked, and I lost my sense of smell.  For others, they develop an emotionless blank stare called the Parkinson’s mask, or their speech becomes slurred and other unmentionable functions don’t function so well.
But, as serious as these aspects of PD may be, there are other more soul-crushing things that I’ve learned about the disease.

Parkinson’s is a self-isolating disease.  In the beginning stages, it’s hard work to try and hide your tremor so that people won’t look at you wondering what’s wrong and why you’re shaking like a leaf in a hurricane.  As the disease progresses and the tremor can no longer be disguised, it can become just downright uncomfortable being around others.  Our society does not respond very well to people with sickness we can’t see, let alone those with visible illness and disability.  We just don’t know what to say to a person who is unable to control his shaking.
So for most people with PD it is much easier to be alone, avoiding the questioning stares of people who can’t really understand.
Big social gatherings demand a lot from people with Parkinson’s.  As the adrenaline starts pumping it somehow turns up the amplification on your tremor.  As the shaking increases, your self-confidence decreases and you look for a place to hide.

For many people with Parkinson’s, as with other diseases, their world shrinks.  Many prefer to be alone.  Others remain behind closed doors due to the lack of mobility, energy, interest or just because of embarrassment or inertia.

As I began to notice my own propensity to withdraw I began to listen to the words that people with Parkinson’s were using.  I began to see the importance of pronouns.

Let me try and demonstrate what I mean by requesting a little audience participation.

Before everyone heads for the exits, rest assured that what I will ask you to do is easy and not embarrassing.  Please help me out here.  Could everybody either close their eyes or focus on an inanimate object in the room.  I do not mean the person sleeping next to you!  Now say the word “I” out loud?  Next, could everyone say the word “you”?  Now, finally, could everyone say the word “we”?
As you spoke those words, what did you think about?  What did you feel?  For most of you, when you said “I” you thought about yourself.  And when you said “you”, you likely thought of a particular person.  You might’ve even visualized someone.  And when you said “we” you likely thought of some group that you identified with; people in this auditorium, family, teammates, dorm mates, classmates, friends.

In 2011, social psychologist and language expert, James Pennebaker, wrote “The Secret Life of Pronouns”.  It’s about what our language says about us.  But it also demonstrates the power of personal pronouns. 
“I”, “my”, “me” are three of the 20 most commonly used words in the English language.  Let’s just focus on “I”.  The word “I” is by far the most commonly used personal pronoun, and it’s moving up the list based on more current studies of word usage.

“I” is used considerably more (almost twice as much in some studies) by people who are depressed or insincere.  Conversely, it is not used very often by truly self-confident leaders.

Now that may seem logical, but not only does the use of particular pronouns tell you something about others (and yourself), but studies show that consciously reducing your use of words like “I”, “my” and “me” can improve the way you think and feel about yourself and the world around you.

Changing one’s personal pronoun usage is more difficult than you think.  Most people have an overwhelming propensity to want to talk about themselves.  Let me give you a recent example.  Carson Pue and I just completed a 75 day, six continent, 17 country, 50,000 km trip around the world.  At one point on the trip we were on the train from Cuzco, high up in the Peruvian Andes, to the extraordinary ruins of Machu Picchu.  Seated near us on the train were a number of younger travelers from Australia and England.
We decided to try an experiment.  The goal was to test how much we could get our fellow travelers to talk about themselves without disclosing virtually anything about ourselves.  By the end of the two hour train trip Carson and I knew virtually the whole life story of a number of the travelers seated next to us.  They knew virtually nothing about us.  No names, no life history, no special circumstances.

Try it sometime.  What you will find interesting is that the person you speak with goes away from the conversation enjoying the experience and thinking you are a great conversationalist.  Listen carefully to the language being used.  The person you are speaking to will typically use the pronoun, “I”, a great deal.  In asking questions of that person you will use the pronoun, “you”. 

How did we become so self-absorbed?  As with some of you, I was born into the postwar baby boomer “you can have it all” generation.  The generation that stood up against authority and insisted upon personal rights.  It was the generation that dropped out and disappeared into a dope induced, feel good, psychedelic haze.  It was the generation of “free love”, freedom to choose, live and let live, do your own thing.  It was the first recognizable “me generation”.  And every subsequent generation seems to have built upon that self-oriented foundation.

Case in point: Who would’ve guessed in the 1960s that the icon of our society, it’s most popular “smart” phone is called the… IPhone!

Consider the manifestations of “I”.  Self-importance, self-esteem, self worth, self-fulfillment, self-actualization, self absorption and self service.  No wonder I thought the world was about me. 
What is the pronoun?  A “pronoun” is really nothing other than a shorthand/replacement for a name or names.  If you want to cut down on the number of times that you use the word “I” “me” or “my”, imagine that every time you use one of those pronouns you say your name.  For example, I might say in response to your question, “How are you?”: “I’m doing fine, thank you.  I just returned from my around the world trip that I did with my friend.  I had a fantastic time.”  Without pronouns my response becomes, “Bob is doing fine, thank you.  Bob just returned from Bob’s around the world trip that Bob did with Bob’s friend.  Bob had a fantastic time.”  It’s not hard to say who is the focus of that discussion!

Pronouns are perhaps the most powerful words in the English language.  Not only do they betray our thoughts and deepest convictions, they can shape our thinking.  Listen to someone speak.  How many times do they use the word “I”, “you”, or “we”?  Just using the word “I”, that single syllable pronoun, leads the listener and the speaker to think in certain ways.  “I” is exclusive.  “It’s all about me”.  “You” is also exclusive.  Only the word “we” is inclusive.  It draws a circle around us. 

In 1968 Harry Edward Nilsson III wrote a song that became a testimonial to our generation.  All too typical of our generation, he was raised by a single mom, his father having walked out on his family when Harry was three years old.  Harry left school after grade 9 and pursued a music career.  He became one of the most famous songwriters in America, sought after by the Beatles, Monkeys, and other well-known musicians, he became a two-time Grammy award winner.  But success took its toll.  Alcohol, drugs, failed financial investments, and ripoffs, seemed to lead to his death in 1994.  He was 53.  Same age I was diagnosed with PD.

One of the most famous songs that he wrote was composed in its entirety while he listened to the busy signal he got after calling a friend on the telephone.  That was before the age of call waiting, call display, voicemail, texting and email.  You might remember the song was later made famous by “Three Dog Night”.  Its lyrics are prophetically applicable today.  It expresses the loneliness and futility of life lived for oneself, the loneliness of “I”.

“One is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do
Two can be as bad as one
It’s the loneliest number since the number one
No is the saddest experience you’ll ever know
Yes, it’s the saddest experience you’ll ever know
One is the loneliest number”
This brings me to my closing remarks on graduation and balancing pronouns.  Consider these phrases:

1.    “I did it!”  And you did.  It took commitment to a goal, dedication and hard work, using the gifts and resources God gave you.

2.     “Thank you!”  You did not do it alone.  Others encouraged you, enabled you, helped you.  Humanly speaking, nothing good can ever be accomplished alone.  There are always others to be thanked.

3.     “We are in this together!”  Your graduating class is forever linked, joined together as a “we”.  It is very likely that members of your class will impact your future in remarkable ways.  And today you have joined more than 24,000 other graduates of Trinity Western.  We are the fruit of this university’s labor.  We are its alumni.  Trinity cannot thrive without its alumni.  We, together, will determine its future success.  We, together, must remain strongly rooted in the truth we learned here.  And we must reach out to serve the world around us.

Whether your future is filled with success or struggle, dignity or disaster, remember the power of personal pronouns.  And remember that God calls us to live in community, “we”.  Jesus could have done it alone.  He had no need for a mother and father, brothers and sisters.  No need for disciples who would constantly fail him.  No need for a church filled with people who constantly mess up the message.  But he modeled “we”.  He planned for us to be in community.

And the final lesson, one that I’m still learning, the change in thinking that started from my diagnosis almost 7 years ago and teaches me daily:

What is the difference between illness and wellness?

Illness begins with “I”.  But wellness starts with “we”.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Parkinson’s Disease on Trial

Pulling open the heavy oak door Stephen stepped into Courtroom 412.  No one else was there except the court clerk, who busied herself getting ready for the morning trial.  Although he could no longer smell, he remembered the musty odor that came from decades of dust and seeped out of lingering sweat stains on the arms of the red leather chairs.  Despite being traditional and formal by today’s standards, the oak paneled room gave Stephen a reminiscent sense of calm as he began to set out his binders of legal briefs, cases, affidavits and documents on the counsel table in front of the judge’s dais.  Whatever the middle-aged lawyer personally thought about any particular judge, judicial respect was demanded by forcing him, even when standing at the lectern that sat in the middle of the counsel table, to look up at least 33° to look the judge in the eye.  As opposed to some of the newer courtrooms, number 412 exuded reverence and respect, as if justice lived there. 
But the silence was broken as opposing counsel yanked open the door and strode into the courtroom oozing confidence.  Richard was one of those “hail fellow well met” lawyers who had a strong handshake, smiled knowingly at his opponents, exchanged pleasantries with everyone easily and laughed more often than seemed necessary.  Immediately upon seeing him, Stephen’s right side began to shake uncontrollably.  The comfortable confidence he had enjoyed just moments before vanished like a frightened child, hiding no doubt under the clerk’s desk or behind the prisoner’s dock.  “Hello, Richard” Stephen said in the boldest voice he could manage.  The two courtroom combatants shook hands, but Stephen could not help but notice Richard gazing at Stephen’s right hand.  Pulling away, Stephen explained nonchalantly, “My meds don’t seem to have kicked in this morning yet.”  He winced as he gave words to his weakness.  “Not a problem.  ” Richard said, half laughing, “We all have bad days.”

Stephen’s mind, and the wall of legal training he had over the years so carefully built around it, suddenly seemed incredibly vulnerable.  He felt fearful, like it was he who was on trial.  He was arguing for his own not his client’s credibility.  Self-doubt chopped away at the fortified conclusions he had so rigorously formed over the past weeks of research and preparation.  Suddenly, he was incredibly tired.  He just wanted the trial to be over.  Parkinson’s disease was defeating him. 
But giving up was not an option; not for Stephen and certainly not for his client.  He had over 20 years of courtroom experience.  He had been successful and PD was not going to take that away from him.  He had known fear before and stared it down, refusing to blink.  But that was before Parkinson’s, like some unwelcome guest, had taken up residence in his body and mind.  It seemed to ridicule him, cause him to stumble, to forget words and spill things, taunting him during the many sleepless nights.

“Order in court” the court clerk barked, announcing the entry of the judge.  “No escape now”, Stephen thought, as he noticed he was sweating more than normal.  “Ironic”, he thought, given his slogan, “Never let them see you sweat”.  He reached for the glass of water in front of him on the counsel table but stopped before reaching it, imagining the embarrassment of spilling its contents all over is nicely bound legal argument.  “My lord, I believe I am on page 52 of my written submissions”, Stephen started in.

By the noon break, Stephen was exhausted.  Perhaps he should have reviewed his remaining submissions, considered the questions that the judge had thrown at him or developed responses to the objections Richard had made, popping up from his chair as if launched off a springboard.  Instead, Stephen retreated to his vehicle parked in the underground parkade and slept for a half-hour before returning to the battle in the courtroom. 
It was Parkinson’s that was on trial.  And like most trials, there would be brief moments of excitement when it seemed one was making headway against the sneering enemy.  But there would also be deflating times when one realized that ground was being lost to the undaunted disease.

A long time ago I learned that good legal counsel don’t just take cases that are “winners”.  There is limited skill or merit in that.  Skillful lawyers fight the battles that need to be fought.  Those cases are rarely easy.  In fact, even with great legal skill and courage, they are more likely to be lost than won.  But where would we be if lawyers only took the easy winners.  Perhaps it is taking the tough cases, the ones that sometimes seem hopeless, the ones that demand a lot of you that make you worthy of your calling.

Life is not easy for any of us. 

But what of that? 

We must have perseverance and above all confidence in ourselves. 

We must believe that we are gifted for something and that this thing must be attained. 

Marie Curie

Saturday, October 13, 2012


It was 1979, the year I graduated from law school, when the term "boat people" sprang  into common use. It was a phrase that spelled desperation and defenselessness. Scraping together everything they had, Vietnamese families bribed government officials, left everything they knew, paid enormous fees to board dangerously overcrowded, unseaworthy fishing boats, and set out for "friendly" foreign ports. That was only the beginning of their saga of uncertainty, sadness and suffering.

Pirates, as in centuries before, attacked, plundered, raped, terrorized, and even murdered the vulnerable freedom-seeking families. The 'boat people' who avoided the pirates often suffered shipwreck, starvation and sickness, ultimately facing test far from their native land. And the few fragile craft that straggled into some foreign shoreline were often refused safe harbor, kept "quarantined" offshore as if they carried an epidemic. Fear filled the minds of would-be rescuers. Hardened hearts portrayed pictures of being overrun, resources exhausted and stability upended, not so much by the frantic demands of those dying offshore, but by those who would follow.

Soon food and water ran out, and desperate circumstances led to desperate means. Ships were scuttled and the near-hopeless fathers, mothers and children risked it all again as they floated towards shore like debris on the tide, their fate unknown. New dangers awaited the survivors onshore. Refugee camps were often nothing more than makeshift slums; overcrowded, unsanitary and unsafe prisons where the weakest and most helpless lived in fear of the strongest. They simply survived as best they could as they waited through weeks and months of rejection while the world decided their future. 
Not often their first choice, 139,000 boat people accepted Canada's offer of shelter. Churches and charities, companies and individual families sponsored these Vietnamese refugees. It was like a blind date. Both parties were willing, but tentative and nervous about this relationship and its potential. The Vietnamese had known little but mistreatment. The Canadians were concerned that they may have let bandits into their pantry. But slowly, skepticism gave way to hope and humble beginnings. Hard work yielded results. Canada became, as it had so many times in its history, a land of opportunity, willing to welcome yet another culture into its ever-changing mosaic mural. 
Yet even today in Canada, the boat people still face hardship and lack of acceptance. Perhaps, to some extent, that is understandable. But it is the "pirates", those who prey on the peace loving and plunder the passive, that make me angry. It is not just the criminals who terrorize our newest citizens. It is often the business bully who slams his fist on the table and demands more than he deserves. Sometimes our Vietnam-born citizens must wonder whether they have exchanged one form of tyrant another.

I rarely get really mad, but late Tuesday night I wanted to curse as the acid rose to my throat. Yes, a settlement had been reached; but I saw no justice. Sure, after 32 years practicing law I knew that lawsuits usually come down to money. It isn't a matter of life and death, or physical harm. But it is still a matter of justice. And since being diagnosed with Parkinson's disease my need for justice has only increased. Not justice for me (despite my PD symptoms I can still fend for myself), but fairness for those who are not able to defend themselves. Bullies come in many shapes and sizes. But they all seek to take away freedom. In this case, it was the "boat people" who were bullied, stripped of their savings and left to re-earn the economic freedom the money represented. 
Injustice is like Parkinson's. It must be confronted at its every appearance and fought at every turn. And when we, wounded, fall we will repair and rise to face the foe again until we are victorious. For freedom is the cause for which we fight, to banish the bully that seeks to make us his.