How Stress Affects the Body

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Pearl Harbor

I was teaching an English as a Second Language class in 2001 when the movie Pearl Harbor was released. Three of the students in my class were Japanese men. One of these men had a relative who was involved in the attack on Pearl Harbor. All three of these men had family members who died when the US dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. All three of these men said that they were raised to believe that the US was the aggressor in the conflict with Japan. They professed to now having a different understanding of history, but they still didn’t understand how the US could justify using the atomic bomb when, according to their parents’ account of the war, their country was already devastated and the vast majority of the populace wanted the government to surrender. That notion has been validated by the writings of Dwight Eisenhower, Douglas MacArthur, and Albert Einstein, along with other statesmen, scientists, and military leaders of that time.

I did not have an answer to those three Japanese men on that day, but I think I have one now: Fear is a powerful motivator, and war is the ultimate expression of fear.

Here are a few Einstein quotations for your consideration as we mark the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor:

I do not know with what weapons World War 3 will be fought, but World War 4 will be fought with sticks and stones.

It is my conviction that killing under the cloak of war is nothing but an act of murder.

You cannot simultaneously prevent and prepare for war.

Peace cannot be kept by force; it can only be achieved by understanding.

The pioneers of a warless world are the youth that refuse military service.

The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing.

Nothing will end war unless the people themselves refuse to go to war.

And one by Martin Luther King:

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.


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Good Vibrations

Jack was a middle-aged man and the picture of health when he had a sudden brain hemorrhage. He had been rushed to the hospital where I serve as chaplain. I was called to the ICU to provide spiritual care for the family as they learned that the damage was extensive and irreversible. The clinical phrase was “no discernible cognitive function.” They would soon be expected to give approval to remove the breathing tube.

When I arrived, a nurse who was checking a monitor nodded towards me in acknowledgement and said, “Here’s the chaplain.” Standing at the bedside and leaning over Jack was a woman I guessed to be his wife. She looked up, revealing the red puffiness around her eyes so common in situations like this. She was clutching a tissue in one of her hands and stroking Jack’s temple with the other. She introduced herself as Susan and confirmed my guess. Standing at the foot of the bed was a young man who Susan introduced as her son, David. He looked up for a brief moment but remained in stunned silence.

It was a typical ICU room except for a portable CD player that was sitting on a small shelf. Next to the player was a CD of The Beach Boys. Glancing at the CD and then at Jack’s soon-to-be widow, I said to her, “I’m guessing someone likes The Beach Boys.”

Susan replied, “They’re Jack’s favorite, his California connection. He grew up there and has always wanted to go back.” She paused for a moment and then continued, “He’s only here because of me. Kristi lives there now. We’re waiting for her….” Susan’s voice trailed off, leaving unspoken the reason for their daughter’s sudden trip from the west coast.

David suddenly said, “She’s going to take this the hardest.” Susan nodded in agreement, adding, “She’s Daddy’s girl.”

Kristi arrived later in the afternoon after friends and extended family members. When she saw her dad lying in the hospital bed with the breathing tube, she erupted into violent sobs, occasionally letting up just enough to catch her breath and choke out, “This can’t be happening,” and then sobbing again, each time joined by one or two others in the room who shared her disbelief. It soon became obvious that it would be a while before Kristi would be emotionally ready to let her dad go. It was decided to leave the breathing tube in overnight. 

Kristi was much calmer the next morning. Surprisingly, it was she who matter-of-factly stated that they were waiting for the respiratory therapist, who, with the nurse, would be removing the breathing tube.

Kristi was softly singing along with Surfer Girl. She looked up at me and said, “Daddy loved The Beach Boys. They reminded him of his childhood in California,” she said. “He told so many stories about how much fun he had that I went there for college and never left. So, it’s really his fault that I live there. Good Vibrations was his favorite. Mine, too.”

We talked a bit about Jack’s faith, and about the family’s understanding of death and dying.

The time came for the breathing tube to be removed. With the nurse’s encouragement, the family had opted to be out of the room during the procedure. It is not uncommon in these situations for the body to continue breathing on its own for a while, but his pulse began slowing down immediately and his blood pressure dropped dramatically so the family was quickly summoned back.

Kristi turned up the CD player just as Don’t Worry, Baby started playing. I could imagine Jack singing that song to his little girl.

Kristi and Susan were in chairs on one side of the bed. David was standing a few feet away on the other side. As Jack’s body struggled to breathe, Kristi turned and looked up at me with a look of helpless anguish. “We talked about this,” I reminded her. “Do you remember what you said?” I nodded towards the bed. “You said, ‘That’s just his body, which he doesn’t need anymore.’ I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s standing behind you now.”

Suddenly, Kristi became perfectly calm. Tears continued to stream down her face, but she had a look of total serenity. “You’re right. I can feel his hands on my shoulders. Everything is okay.”

The time between breaths was becoming longer, and I realized that Good Vibrations was playing. The last breath came just as the song faded. Kristi noticed it, too. She glanced at the CD player, looked at me, and smiled. 

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Yesterday I attended the funeral of Charles Bledsoe, a WWII veteran who fought in the Battle of the Bulge, was one of the first US troops to meet Russian soldiers at the River Elbe, and survived being run over by a tank. After returning from the war, a job as a door-to-door Bible salesman brought him to South Dakota where he soon married. Charles and his wife, Marian, got involved in archery and pioneered the sport of hunting and target archery in South Dakota. Charles taught archery to South Dakota youth for 35 years and was inducted into the Archery Hall of Fame in 1990.

I got to know Charles when I was chaplain resident at the Sioux Falls VA Medical Center. Charles had been awarded numerous medals for his military service, but when he tried to join the Order of the Purple Heart he discovered that it was missing from his military records. One of the greatest honors in my life was giving the invocation at a ceremony where US Senator Tim Johnson awarded Charles the Purple Heart as well as the Bronze Star for his World War II service 68 years earlier. Charles told me many stories of his life before, during, and after the war. He personified service and sacrifice in ways that I cannot imagine.

When he found out that I’m a writer, he asked me to write his story. During one of the retellings of his military service, he paused, looked away for a moment, and then said, “Do you have to write about the killing? There was so much killing. So much killing.”

I miss you, Charlie.

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The following was originally written for the January newsletter of a church I served as pastor.

As we turn the calendar to January, conversations often include New Year’s resolutions. Did you promise yourself to get in shape? Save more money? Watch less TV? Eat less junk food? Read more? Break a bad habit? Start a good habit? In order to do any of these things, you must repent. That’s right, repent. But that may not mean what you think it means. The Greek word is metanoia and the literal translation is simply to “change one’s mind.” The Hebrew word is shub which means “to turn around.” The implication is that if you change your mind you will also change your behavior. All too often, when I hear people talking about repentance it turns out they are really talking about confession, which is acknowledging a wrongdoing and apologizing for it. To be truly repentant requires more than saying you’re sorry – it requires that you stop doing whatever it was that make you feel sorry in the first place. Without repentance, the confession is meaningless. In non-religious language, if the behavior continues, saying you’re sorry doesn’t count for much.

Conversations about repentance often include talking about sin, and especially about original sin, which was the notion that human beings are by nature sinful. The Greek word that has been translated as sin is hamartia, but it originally had nothing to do with the nature of humanity – it simply meant “to miss the mark.” A close derivation of the word was hamartanein, which was an archery term to describe an archer hitting an outer ring of the target rather than the center.

By the time you read this, you may have already broken a New Year’s resolution. That’s okay. Keep at it. If you were an archer who missed the bulls-eye on your first attempt, you would simply note to yourself what you did wrong (confession), adjust your aim and try again (repent). And again. And again. Unless you’re a modern-day Robin Hood, you may not ever hit the exact center of the target, but eventually you could get most of your arrows in the bulls-eye, or at least you’ll stop getting all of them in the outer ring.

Now that you know what the words originally meant, consider this – sinning doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a bad person, it just means you need more practice. If you find yourself missing the mark and not living quite the way Jesus taught, adjust your aim so you do better next time and keep trying. Repent.

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