The nasty little bugs that routinely killed people before the 20th century have largely been beaten back by medical science.
Vaccines have knocked out the worst of them: polio, smallpox, typhoid, typhus and others. This is probably medical science's most valuable contribution to extending, preserving and enhancing human health on this planet.
We have some newer bugs around these days, giving us fits as we fight to defeat them. Their crafty resilience leads one to believe that they may perhaps inherit this planet from us after they do us in.
Nevertheless, we seem to have gained the upper hand for the moment.
That doesn't change the fact that disease remains the biggest killer on the Earth. It's just that nowadays, most people die without any help from outside organisms. Stress, lifestyle and self-abuse call us to account more frequently, but just as surely.
Even though I'm not a medical doctor, I have something to say about this, because I think psychological conditions may be killing us more rapidly than we sometimes think. What about stress? It's an epidemic now and, alongside its main running buddy, depression, has gained a stranglehold on our throats, or, more accurately, our hearts.
Can we do something about this? I think we definitely can.
A major contributor to our health and well-being, especially as it bears on the effects of stress, is the interpretation we place on events and conditions in our lives. It is inevitably what we make of a situation that determines the toll it will take on us.
What one person sees as a frustrating obstacle to the accomplishment of his all-important goals another will take in stride, just another incident in a day full of them. Is it good? Is it bad? Or is it merely neutral?
Imagine two persons standing in a bank line. One of them is fuming. He feels late and this is throwing him off schedule. He wants to punch the kidneys of the man in front. There's no emergency here, and yet his hypothalamus is pumping adrenalin as though a tiger were bearing down on him, ready to tear him to shreds. This state of hyper-vigilance is hard on the old instrument. Muscles are tense; breath is rapid and short; heart is thumping away like a jackhammer. He's wearing out his body for no good reason, just because he thinks crisis thoughts.
Another line-stander is daydreaming, humming, just idling there. He's relaxed, resting; his digestion proceeds apace, his blood pressure is normal, synapses untroubled by excitatory hormones. He's not aging his body any faster than the immutable clock insists. He stays relaxed, even content, perhaps realizing that the five extra minutes he's spent standing uselessly in this line aren't going to make any difference at all in the rhythm of his daily round.
Meanwhile, his type A colleague is having a hissy fit, living as though he were in a perpetual state of emergency. He's getting angry that the bank doesn't have more tellers, that they seem to think if only they provide us with a TV we're content to wait in line, that the man in front of him has started small talking with the teller. He's boiling over.
That's expensive to the system.
Resiliency eventually gives way to fragility when we habitually live on edge. It's the same with any mechanism.
Imagine how long your car would last if you never turned it off, if you always drove at full speed and with your foot on the brake, taking every turn as fast as possible.
Thoughts change the body because, hormonally speaking, the body doesn't know the difference between reality and fantasy.
If you think "emergency" the body feels "emergency" and spends its precious resources accordingly.
Now, do you work your mind or does it work you? Can you change your thoughts? Sure. The technology exists and has for thousands of years. It's called meditation.
How does meditation help with this problem? Quite simply, meditation teaches you how to stop and let your mind and body idle in neutral. Both the mind and the body have a tendency to rev themselves up needlessly. Many people live in this revved-up state all their lives and it costs them plenty. It costs them energy, happiness and, I suppose, it also costs them time on this planet. Many don't know there's anything they can do about it. Or, even if they heard about meditation, they don't know how it works. Or maybe they've already decided they can't take a half-hour to just sit there. It would be too boring.
Well, yes, it can be boring to do nothing. But then one of the things you learn by meditating is that the things we do to keep ourselves from being bored are alienating us from ourselves.
All this media, all this frenzy is confusing . We lose our bearings. To sit and center ourselves in nothingness on a daily basis is stabilizing. Of course, some people think stability is boring. And how could they possible find the time?
Hugh R. Leavell has been a marriage and family therapist in Palm Beach County for 18 years. He offers free seminars on couples communication and conflict management. Call him at (561) 471-0067 or visit his Web site www.oneminutetherapist.com.