Futility of Unnecessary Comparisons

 I needed tulips so I helped myself.

When I was going through my treatment for cancer there was an evening when my spouse told me about an unusual sensation in his right leg. For several days it had felt as though cold water was being poured on his foot and calf. It sounded like some form of neuropathy to me and I told him so.

Unfortunately for him, I chose that moment to climb up on my soapbox and announce, “the one thing I have learned since my cancer diagnosis is that ANYTHING can happen to ANYONE at ANYTIME.”

I then went on to list the possibilities, all of them bad: car accident; stroke; heart attack; cancer; ALS; financial ruin; being caught in a hotel room as a cyclone goes through. You get the picture.

He begged me to stop and added that he thoroughly regretted mentioning his leg to me. And then we laughed.

It is, however, no laughing matter. This is life. In a single moment we can go from this to that.  Fortunately, it is not always so dramatic, yet, our life can radically change in one moment. Through no fault of our own.

Part of the shock and the pain we suffer goes beyond the event itself. We simply can’t imagine that this thing is happening to us.  We can imagine “these things” happening to others. But in our heart of hearts we can delude ourselves into thinking that we just might be exempt from the unacceptable.

It makes sense.  We would be a sorry lot if we spent our days fretting about all the things that might and could go wrong. And we aren’t better off if we think only good things should happen to us. It is easy to believe our lives are normal only when free of any and all misfortune. Of course, if that were the case, it would be the exception.

How easy it is to compare our misfortunes or gains. Yet, as we all know, there will always be those whose suffering is more than ours and those who suffer less.

Take today

I have a minor health complaint as measured on the big scale of medical woes, even though I don’t like it. I explained to a friend who is going through an exceptionally rough time that I am not prepared to talk about my minor issue.

“There is no comparison,” I said, “to what you are living with.”

Such a typical and human response. We laughed and I went ahead and said a few words afterall.

It reminded me, however, of something important.

Where I began this piece was where my caregiver and spouse uttered a complaint, really a statement, about his condition. You already know what happened back there. The important point, though, is that caregivers are often reticent to complain about anything because after all they at least don’t have cancer, or heart disease or any other significant health problem. Their job is to grin and bear it, so to speak and support you.

It is a mistake, in my way of thinking, for caregivers not to be able to issue a complaint or get a break or be able to say to someone, “this sucks and I need help.”

It doesn’t stop there. Having worked with many people undergoing treatment for cancer and others with heart disease, I know this tendency to compare shows up everywhere. Shame, even enters into it. More than one person told me that her cancer was not as bad as some others and therefore she shouldn’t take up space in workshops. This kind of judgement is endless.

The truth is, suffering is relative to our experience, including our environment, conditioning, learning and DNA.  I agree it is essential to acknowledge how fortunate we are. I also conclude, that it doesn’t help anyone to line up suffering on a scale and plot a graph as to who suffers most. (or even who should be suffering more or less) It is an individual and a multi-factoral experience.

When things go wrong, we can all use a hand.

One type of suffering we can minimize is what Buddhists sometimes call “piggy back suffering,” which means something like suffering on top of suffering.

An example is a diagnosis of a life-threatening illness. Besides the reality of having the illness there is the additional and unnecessary suffering of the “why me,” and “it’s not fair” part. Although it is perfectly natural and human to view it this way, it isn’t helpful.

What we all can do after the shock has subsided and we are fully cognizant of what has happened, we can ask a question. What can I do now?

We help ourselves when we begin to put our energy into the things, we can do something about and not waste our precious time and energy railing against what can’t be changed. Life isn’t fair. I am the first to agree that this isn’t easy.  And the first to say it is possible. There is always something that can be done, even if it is only small steps.

I no longer believe that “it won’t happen to me.” This isn’t a depressing thought but rather a realistic call to live fully. We each get to decide what living fully is for us. This is a life koan (a paradoxical anecdote or riddle, used in Zen) for each of us to discover.

Life isn’t necessarily fair but when I am clear-eyed, I see that it mostly, if not always, works in my favour.

Sing while there is voice left.

Note1: The Buddhists have a corner on the market, in my books, with practical advice on how to reduce suffering. Anything by Pema Chodron.  I especially like this title When Things Fall Apart. And also Darlene Cohen’s excellent book Turning Suffering Inside Out: A Zen Approach for Living with Physical and Emotional Pain. Remember to check for books at the library. I primarily provide a link to Amazon so you can read more about it.

Note 2: Dr. Itami  devoted his life to improve the quality of his patient’s lives, extend longevity, and encourage them to live a meaningful life everyday. His work is based on Morita Therapy. Check out his guidelineslearning elements and other articles on this website, if you are interested.

Note 3: Thanks so much for dropping by to read the Wed post. I hope you find them useful in some way. I enjoy writing them and  I wish you all a week with many wonderful moments. Warm greetings, Trudy

photo solstice GAM

The Power of Music on Health, Well-Being and Ageing

“According to Arnold Steinhardt, a founding member and first violinist of the Guarneri String Quartet, chamber music audiences nearly always include many health care practitioners, everything from podiatrists to psychiatrists, since there seems to be a mysterious and powerful underground railroad linking medicine and music. Perhaps music is an equally effective agent of healing, and doctors and musicians are part of a larger order serving the needs of mankind. Perhaps they recognize each other as brothers and sisters.” This excerpt is from a longer and interesting article on Music and Health from Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard Medical School.

As so often happens, I am looking for one thing and stumble across the unexpected. I have been interested in music my entire life and in recent years fascinated by the research on the brain and the advances in neuroscience. On a personal level, much like you, I have  experienced the rejuvenating and life affirming aspects of music. Music Therapists and those who play or actively listen to music know the importance of music to soothe and enliven the soul.

Similarly, music can also, reduce pain, give us goosebumps, conjure up a memory and bring on unadulterated bouts of joy. Just a few of the anecdotal effects  being  examined using Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI). Next up is the possibility of a prescription for music, in lieu of, or in conjunction with a pill. Obviously not a panacea.

Currently, there is a fascinating 10 year study being carried out by the National Institute for Health.

It includes the healing effects of music on the brain and the body.  I found an engaging and brilliant interview with Renee Fleming, Frances Collins, director of NIH and Vivek Murty, the 19th and former Surgeon General of the US.  It is 45 minutes long but don’t let that scare you off. It is worth the time to settle down and watch/listen to these three  experts discuss the links and the promise between science and music. Their discussion of the research, and it’s pivotal role in our health, is fascinating.

I loved it so much that I will book another appointment with myself to listen again. The link I include here takes you to the NIH page with a few different videos from a conference on the subject. I chose that in case you wanted to see more.  However, the one I am recommending is Music and the Mind with Fleming, and Collins. Renee Fleming is as skillful a moderator as she is an outstanding opera singer.

National Institute of Health Not to be missed  There is no need for me to add a another word. I hope you enjoy this as much as I did.


Note 1:) To read the full text of  Music and Health from Harvard, I find the simplest way is to type Music and Health  into your search engine and then select. It is awkward but give it a try.

Note 2:) Tonight, I am attending a musical performance at the National Arts Centre, thanks to a friend. This is bound to fill up my heart, stimulate my brain and may well boost my immune system, Zukerman Plays Bruch. And I have the good fortune of listening in a grand hall filled with others equally enthralled. Apparently, this is also an important part of music’s properties – listening and playing in community.

Note 3:) I hope you take the time to listen to a little music everyday – music that you love. I once had a student who decried the spiritual and meditative music sometimes associated with illness. “Finally,” she told me, ” I sat down at my piano and banged out Heavy Metal, with a glass of red wine, and felt better than I had in weeks.” Go and make some music or enjoy the music made by others. See you next week. Thank you for showing up here week after week. I appreciate you. Trudy

westcoast snow on holly

Celebrate a Snow Day

“I am going to keep having fun every day I have left, because there is no other way of life. You just have to decide whether you are a Tigger or an Eeyore.” Randy Pausch


News travels fast.

Schools in Ottawa closed today. Furthurmore, Universities, public buildings, community centres and more, gave notice they will close as well, due to excessive snow and high winds.   Although we get lots of snow in Ottawa, schools don’t close.  Adults and children jumped for joy,  delighted with this extraordinary event. It was a snow day! How will we celebrate?

Of course this same news spells trouble for travellers as one flight after another gets cancelled in Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto and planes are diverted to Quebec City.  Yet, the inconvenience and worry of winter travel also creates a wealth of stories with which we can regale our  friends and family, when we finally do meet up.

Since weather is uncontrollable, we may as well find a way to enjoy it and even take advantage of  a “snow day.” A bowl of popcorn and a good book. Snowshoeing down the street. (No cars out and about.) Stirring up a pan of favourite cookies. Calling friends to come celebrate this crazy white stuff.

Or follow the example of this man who lives on Gabriola where they usually don’t get snow. His advice is to sit by the fire; read; listen to an opera; play the piano  and then have a nap. Some people know how to live.

Or, better yet, he says, “drag out your old Austrian schlitten, (sled) hop on and ride down the hill to the snow covered beach.

Now this is a rare and beautiful sight on a gulf Island.

It strikes me that finding joy is oftentimes going to the trouble to create fun. Bundling up and going outside in the elements is not particularly convenient.  And when we feel that winter cold and snow on our face, it can inspire complaint, or something to celebrate. Depends on your point of view.

Yet, whatever point of view you take, we are all soothed and welcomed the moment we step back inside  the comfort of our home.

Kids know what to do.

They fling themselves, with abandon, into a day like this.  Tobogganing; shoveling (yes, a matter of perspective) building snow forts and angels. Adults are well served to find a kid and get lessons on how to have fun in all kinds of weather.

In fact we need to celebrate not just snow but fun in general. As Randy Pausch adds  “Never, ever underestimate the importance of having fun.”

May you all create something fun to do this week and tell me about it. Warmly, Trudy

Note 1:) On September 18, 2007, Carnegie Mellon professor and alumnus Randy Pausch delivered a one-of-a-kind last lecture that made the world stop and pay attention. It became an internet sensation viewed by millions, an international media story, and a best-selling book that has been published in more than 35 languages. If you want to see the Carnegie Mellon Page on Randy click And it all started with Randy »

If you only want to watch The Last Lecture. Here you go. Be forewarned that it is long. One hour and sixteen minutes.

Note 2:)  Photos, thanks to Gottfried M. The irony is not lost on me that I used mostly west coast snow photos.

Note 3:) Thanks as always, for reading this blog.



lanterns tokyo

Sometimes Yes and Sometimes No

Ten years ago I was teaching an eight week  program at Wellspring Calgary, on Living Well With Illness. My co-facilitator, colleague  and precious friend John Stephure and I, were wrapping up the last evening. Just before we shutdown, a participant asked me for the name of my favourite book.

As a lover of books it was like being asked to name my favourite child. Impossible. However, a book title had sprung to mind. I confidently announced that one of my most favourite and important books was the Power of A Positive No by William Ury.

To my complete and utter surprise I heard John, who was standing by my side, say to our group,” Trudy has never read that book.”

I turned to face him with a look of disbelief on my face and then turned to the participants and announced –  “Of course I have read that book. I read it twice.”

There was a split second of silence followed by John’s clear and direct response: “you could have fooled me.”

Everyone laughed. Me too.

Yet, something had burned into my brain. It felt as though I had been hit by a stick, compliments of a Zen master. It rattled me.

Life can change in a moment. This was the last official thing that John and I did together. Four weeks later he had died as a result of his cancer that had been predicted to end his life ten  years earlier. Consequently, those words became an important part of John’s legacy in my life.

For instance, I experienced a challenging and proud moment two years later when I declined an offer to participate in a project that I would have thoroughly enjoyed. A former colleague invited me to sit on a committee doing work that I believed in.

I was, however, involved in the deeply meaningful work of caring for my young grandchildren and regaining my own health. My commitment was to be fully present at that stage of their young lives so I chose to say no to the generous offer. Competing purposes, even good ones, would have been a detriment, at that time.

When I delivered my gracious no, with thanks for the invitation, my colleague said:

“John would be proud of you.”

During John’s last ten years he devoted himself to help establish Wellspring Calgary, a free resource centre for anyone affected by cancer, including caregivers. It continues to provide a wealth of  gold standard programs and services for individuals, families and friends. His vision never wavered from his purpose that no one need face cancer alone and that all services had to be free.

Yes to Life

John said YES to life and invitations of all kinds but he also filtered them through what he called his Four F’s: Family, Friends, Faith and Fun. He was clear on his purposes and what he wanted to accomplish, see, and do, while he could. It appeared to me that his purposes fell under the category he named Faith. He took his work seriously. And his “yes” was always, without exception the faithful “yes.” In other words, yes was a promise, and he kept his promises.

 He also said No

The Four F’s became his filter to help with those decisions.  He would sometimes say no, if the request didn’t fall into one of his important categories. Take golf as a Fun  example. John loved golf and winters in Calgary are long and cold. You would not find John sitting in a meeting during July and August. Meetings could happen ten months of the year but not in the summertime. His filter of Fun was never taken for granted.

Many of us are awkward around the word no. When my children were growing up I let them know they could ask me for anything as long as they considered no an acceptable answer. I, on the other hand, found saying no disconcerting in most other instances. Illness was an excellent teacher to help me develop the skill of how and when to say a gracious no.

When our calendar fills up with tests, treatments and appointments and we are fatigued and unwell, we have a so called “acceptable” reason to decline requests, including ones we would enjoy. Furthermore, we get immediate feedback for uttering too many yes’s. Our bodies and minds let us know that a mistake was made.

Yet, we need to learn to say NO when the reason may not suit others. As good health returns it is easy to slip back into the same old habits. And then the words of the poet, Naomi Shihab Nye come to mind:

Know you could tumble any second.
Then decide what to do with your time.


William Ury, learned to say no because of his young daughter’s serious illness.  No to unnecessary tests and intrusive examinations. Yet, he needed her medical team to  engage and connect with his daughter and the family. How to navigate this delicate balance and not fracture important relationships was the challenge. And it became the learning that produced the Power of A Positive No

The wisdom of saying yes, is indisputable for a full and engaging life.  And NO is part of that. We can look at it this way. In order to be faithful to the yes’s we have already given, there are times when we need to say no. This is a valuable skill worth learning, if we aren’t good at it yet. How to say no without fracturing our most important relationships. How to say no in order to preserve the time for what is most important to each of us. Saying no can be nerve wracking and learning to do so graciously can be a game changer.


“All too often we cannot bring ourselves to say No when we want to and know we should.” William Ury


Note 1: William Ury is the co-founder of the Negotiation Project at Harvard and he has always been a “say yes” and “get past no” expert. In contrast, he discovered the power and necessity of the positive no during a medical crisis.  He described it something like this: We need to be able to say a gracious and firm no, in order to say yes to something more important. And ultimately, that NO will get to YES. Ten years later I still recommend his book, The Power of A Positive No.

Note 2: Full disclosure: I am no expert at this yet but I am so much better than I used to be. Mostly, I have learned to give myself a pause rather than to jump in and say yes, if I am uncertain. Life keeps offering us so many choices, things we would love to do.  Yet, we have limited time and resources. Now, I sleep on the offers, and that has made all the difference.

Note 3: It is best not to mention the weather this week.  I didn’t join the hail and hearty crowd, after all. Sigh. Thanks for taking the time to read my blog. Until next week, Trudy