The year 2011 proved to be a challenging year.  A number of serious health issues in close family members took center stage.  The frequency of my posts declined in part due to these important distractions but other factors also played a major role.  Although I published fewer articles, the number of visits to my blog increased substantially.

 

Over the course of the year, I had 18,305 hits at my website by 15,167 unique visitors, accounting for over 25,000 page views.  I had visitors from every state in the Union and visits from people from 140 nations around the world.  Visitors from the United States accounted for the vast majority of those hits, but the UK, Canada, and Australia also brought in a large contingent of visitors.

 

One article in particular far outpaced all other posts.  My post on Brain Waves and Other Brain Measures accounted for as many visits as the next three most popular posts combined.  Of my posts published in 2011, only four made it to this year’s top ten list.  The other six were published in 2010.  Of those six from 2010, four were also on the top ten list last year.

 

Great interest persisted in my post entitled Nonmoral Nature: It is what it is.  This review of Stephen Jay Gould’s most famous article sustained a number two ranking for a second straight year.  I had also reviewed in 2010 a very popular New York Time’s article by Steven Pinker entitled The Moral Instinct.  This article moved up a notch this year, ultimately ranking number three.  My critical article on the Implicit Associations Test ranked number four this year, versus a number six ranking last year.  And my Hedgehog versus the Fox mindset piece ranked number ten this year, compared to a number seven ranking last year.

 

So here is the Top Ten list for 2011.

  1. Brainwaves and Other Brain Measures (2011)
  2. Non Moral Nature: It is what it is (2010)
  3. Moral Instinct  (2010)
  4. IAT: Questions of Reliability and Validity  (2010)
  5. Where Does Prejudice Come From?  (2011)
  6. Cognitive Conservatism, Moral Relativism, Bias, and Human Flourishing  (2011)
  7. What Plato, Descartes, and Kant Got Wrong: Reason Does Not Rule.  (2010)
  8. Intuitive Thought  (2010)
  9. Effects of Low SES on Brain Development  (2011)
  10. Are you a Hedgehog or a Fox?  (2010)

It’s interesting to me that this list includes the very foundational issues that have driven me in my quest.  And each was posted with great personal satisfaction.   This encompassing cross section of my work is, in fact, a good starting point for those who are new to my blog.  There are several popular 2011 posts that ranked outside the top ten but ranked highly relative to other posts published in 2011.  These other posts include:

One article I published late in 2011 has attracted significant attention.   I believe that it is perhaps one of the most important posts I’ve written.  As I was writing this retrospective, Conspicuous Consumption and the Peacock’s Tail was far outpacing all other posts.

 

The most emotional and personally relevant articles pertained to significant problems in healthcare in the United States and my wife’s battle with breast cancer.  These articles include: (a) What not to say to someone with cancer: And what helps; (b) Up and Ever Onward: My Wife’s Battle With Cancer; (c) Cancer, Aging, & Healthcare: America, We Have a Problem; (d) We’re Number 37! USA USA USA!; and (e) Tears of Strength in Cancer’s Wake.  The latter pertains to perhaps the proudest parental moment of my life.

 

Another very important issue that I wrote a fair amount about includes the pernicious affect of poverty on child development.  Clicking here takes you to a page that lists all of the articles on this topic.  Knowing the information in this series should motivate us, as a society, to truly evaluate our current political and economic policies.

 

One of my favorite articles tackled my long standing curiosity about the geology of the place I live.  The article itself did not get a lot of attention, but I sure loved writing it.

 

This two-year journey, thus far has resulted in perhaps unparalleled personal and intellectual growth.  It has changed the way I look at life, the world around me, and my fellow human beings.   It is my sincerest hope that those who have seen fit to read some of my material have experienced shifts of perception or at least a modicum of enlightenment.

 

The bottom line:

 

The human brain, no matter how remarkable, is flawed in two fundamental ways.  First, the proclivities toward patternicity (pareidolia), hyperactive agency detection, and superstition, although once adaptive mechanisms, now lead to many errors of thought.  Since the age of enlightenment, when human kind developed the scientific method, we have exponentially expanded our knowledge base regarding the workings of the world and the universe.  These leaps of knowledge have rendered those error prone proclivities unessential for survival.  Regardless, they have remained a dominant cognitive force.  Although our intuition and rapid cognitions have sustained us, and in some ways still do, the subsequent everyday illusions impede us in important ways.

 

Secondly, we are prone to a multitude of cognitive biases that diminish and narrow our capacity to truly understand the world. Time after time I have written of the dangers of ideology with regard to its capacity to blindfold its disciples.  Often those blindfolds are absolutely essential to sustain the ideology.  And this is dangerous when truths and facts are denied or innocents are subjugated or brutalized.  As I discussed in Spinoza’s Conjecture:

“We all look at the world through our personal lenses of experience.  Our experiences shape our understanding of the world, and ultimately our understanding of [it], then filters what we take in.  The end result is that we may reject or ignore new and important information simply because it does not conform to our previously held beliefs.

Because of these innate tendencies, we must make additional effort in order to discover the truth.

 

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I’m not an emotional man.  As such, I rarely experience the extremes of sadness or joy.  This is not to say that I do not experience joy or sadness – I do.  I take great pleasure in life and also feel the pain that comes with it.  But, I am very stable and steadfast – very familiar and comfortable with the middle of the emotional spectrum.  Some might say that I am too serious, and that they have.

 

Because of this disposition, I don’t cry very often – in fact it takes a lot to make me cry.  It is not as though I actively resist crying, or that I view it as a weakness.  I just seem disinclined to go to such places.  It is my composition.

 

Lately however, things have changed and I have found myself more inclined to tear up.  My wife was diagnosed with breast cancer about six months ago and has since endured a great deal.  I guess one might say that I too am a bit more vulnerable and raw.

 

The tears that I have shed have not sprung from fear or even from empathy.  I have sustained confidence that she will survive this.  And at times when she has been fearful or just exhausted and frustrated, I have instinctively been her rock.   My tears instead, have fallen quite unexpectedly at times of great relief.

 

I vividly recall meeting with my wife’s surgeon just after her diagnosis and tearing up as he left the office having reassured Kimberly that she will be okay. I held Kimberly firmly in my arms and we both wept.

 

On the day of the lumpectomy I sat with my mother and our college aged children as we anxiously awaited news from the surgeon. At that point in time Kimberly had also been diagnosed with thyroid cancer and we did not know whether her breast cancer had moved to her lymph nodes. It was a very tense and scary time. When her surgeon called me out for the post surgical conference, he shared with me the good news that her lymph nodes were clear.  I choked back tears as I thanked him.  The emotional relief emerged forcefully and tearfully when I walked back into the waiting room to share this news with my family. I’m sure that my children have never before seen me in such a state.  A few minutes later, as I tried to share this news with Kimberly’s mother on the telephone, I could not talk and again tears streamed down my recently moistened cheeks.

 

Since that Spring day, Summer has come and gone, and Kimberly has endured prolific post surgical bleeding, mammosite radiation, a reevaluation of her thyroid nodules (negative for cancer), completed 50% of her chemotherapy treatments and I have resumed my steadfastness.  I have been a rock – steady and sure.  Of course this is not completely true.  I am less able to endure violence for entertainment on the television and I have little patience for the malicious or ignorant forays of others.  But generally, I have held it together.

 

Then one day my wife came to me in tears after reading a letter sent to her by my daughter (Meghan), her step-daughter.  I read it and it shook me to my core.  I cried as thoroughly as I ever recall.  She wrote (this is just an excerpt):

 

All of the things you are going through really, really, really suck and it is out of everyone’s control. I’m sure you’ve heard it all before with the flood of cards you have been receiving since mid May. But maybe you haven’t heard what I am going to say…

 

Life is amazing.  We are all so truly lucky to be here. Out of all the stars, out of all the systems WE are here. It is a one in infinity probability. And despite all the suffering, you are here and you are unique; the only one that thinks like you… you are the only one that hears your thoughts… you are the only one here right now experiencing what you’re experiencing and feeling how you feel about it. And maybe that makes people feel lonely, but I feel lucky and I hope you do too.  So whenever you’re having one of those moments when you’re hating everything, “Why me?!” turn it around to “I am lucky to be here and living the life I’m living.” You’re the only person who can have the relationship you have with me, my Dad, with Alec and Paige, with your siblings. With this random chance of us all being in the same time, we are all so lucky… So keep going, hang in there, stay strong, let weakness, vulnerability, and sadness take over when you feel it fitting, but after,  breath deeply (because you are the only one in that moment feeling what you feel, breathing that 78% nitrogen, 20% oxygen & remaining percentages, that is your breath and only yours).  We have to cherish and recognize the awesomeness of it all, it is truly incredible and it blows me away almost daily.  So the next time we are all together at dinner or bumming around, take a second to think “Wow, there will be no moment like this, we are truly unique!”

 

My daughter in that moment became the rock and I could let go.   And I did let go!  This morning I read a quote posted on Facebook by a friend that read:

 

People cry not because they’re weak.  It’s because they have been strong for too long.

 

It is immensely touching and life changing when your “child” rises and shows the capacity and wisdom to be the rock.  And I am thankful that I had the capacity to let go of that role in that moment.  I am fortunate to have a wife that helped nurture such love in my daughter, and a daughter who has herself persevered through adversity and grown into an incredible woman.  Meghan is right, we are so very fortunate to be here at all, to be together, to be loved, and to be aware of the uniqueness and improbability of it all.  A wise person of unknown identity once said “Adversity does not build character, it reveals it.” This cancer has given us the opportunity to appreciate the strength and character of those around us who take turns being the rock.  It is this strength of others that gives me the occasion to let go, and shed some tears.

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I have often said: “Life has a way of getting in the way of itself.”  I had been implying that life plans don’t necessarily work out due to the vagaries of life itself.  In my wife’s case, a more literal interpretation is fitting.  A DNA replication error set in place a rapid cell duplication process resulting in invasive ductal carcinoma.  Her breast cancer, this life gone amok, has taken center stage.

 

Talk about a game changer – this changes everything.  In my role as a psychologist I long ago became acutely aware of just how wrong things can go in life, and these professional experiences solidified in me the importance of appreciating the things that go well.  It has also instilled in me the knowledge that absolutely nothing is permanent.  But this cancer diagnosis has taken this enlightenment to a whole new level.

 

Thomas Hobbes once noted, “… the life of man, [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”  Historically, this has been true for many of our ancestors, and it remains true for many today.  Such is not the case for many of us who have been fortunate to be born into a time and place where survival is not an everyday struggle.  But when facing a diagnosis of cancer,  Hobbes’ perspective seems particularly cogent.  I can only imagine how true this perspective must be for Kimberly.  Although her family surrounds her with love and support, only she alone, faces the scaring scalpel and the life sucking chemotherapy.

 

In the vast configuration of things, we all know that she is not alone.  Many people go through this, but none of those near and dear to her, know what she endures and fears.  Life for her has temporarily, and most certainly, become at times, nasty and brutish.  There is an ebb and flow to this process, but the difficult times rob her of the many activities that filled her with zest.  Even at relatively good times, her quality of life is a poor reflection of what it had been. Often food is less tasty, if desirable at all.  Restful sustained sleep is hard to come by and endurance and fortitude seem to be a thing of the past: as is her gorgeous full head of hair.  It’s one thing to be a man and gradually lose one’s hair over a period of decades (I know it well).  It’s quite another to be a woman and leave a trail of hair where ever you go.  And really feeling good – it’s an occasional visitor that does not stick around long.  I know this is torturous for her.  It breaks my heart.

 

On the plus side, there is the reality that this life-run-amok has changed perspectives and brought our family closer together.  From my point of view, it has brought into focus what really matters in life.  It has freed us from the banal fruitless issues du jour.

 

But underneath this greater closeness is a universal fear.  We all share it, but I am certain that it resonates deeper in Kimberly’s mind.  The fear is: “What if this isn’t over?”  We have no certain answers, but the statistics are on her side.  Long term survival is the norm.  This is one form of cancer that science and medicine has effectively constrained.

 

Her chemo is a preventative measure, not one aimed at eking out a few months or years.  With this in mind, I try to frame this phase of treatment within the context of a physical challenge.  One of our favorite activities is riding our tandem bicycle.  We don’t just get on a clunky unwieldy tandem and leisurely putz around town.  We ride a high tech machine and we ride it hard and fast.  A typical ride covers 20 to 30 miles and often involves ascending some of the biggest hills in our area.  These climbs are often long and brutal – requiring a special focus and tenacity.  The reward however, is the effortless descent that is sweeter for the effort that made it possible.  Over the next few months we will be climbing a new and even more difficult hill – struggling as we go.  We shall strive to endure it for the rewards on the other side.  We will make it.

 

And once we reach the top, it is my sincerest hope that all of us who have fought this battle with Kimberly will make the best of the rest of the ride.   Life, with or without cancer,  is short and exceptionally precious.  This experience has certainly and deservedly taken center stage, but it has also put a spotlight on what is truly meaningful.  The other stuff is just clutter.  Meanwhile, the slow arduous slog continues – and we endeavor upward with anticipation of the sweet descent.  All the while we take solace in the warm glow of love that sustains us and powers us up and ever onward.

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Having a loved one with cancer is a life changing experience.  It necessitates coping with the medical demands and perhaps equally challenging, the psychological ones.  One of the most curious issues my wife has had to deal with are the things people say.  Many people do say the right thing, but often she recounts horrible things that leave me wondering “What were they thinking?

 

Dealing with a diagnosis is quite overwhelming and really quite scarey.  It demands a grieving process and coming to terms with the reality of it all.  The new learning and the scheduling of appointments are substantial demands by themselves; but, dealing with the psychological issues may readily constitute the biggest early challenge.

 

Fear and uncertainty abound when you first get such a diagnosis.  No matter how hard one tries to internalize the notion that ductal carcinoma is perhaps one of the most successfully remedied forms of cancer, this knowledge is often overpowered by the fear that the word CANCER elicits.  For most of history, a diagnosis of cancer has been a death sentence.  This is hard to get past.

 

A person in the early stages of diagnosis does not need to hear the horror stories no matter how factual they are.  It only feeds the fear.  What has been most surprising to me is the fact that some people, who have had a personal encounter with cancer, seem to forget the vulnerability one feels early in the experience.  Some seasoned survivors seem to latch onto the novice and assume that they have license to unload their painful personal stories.  I do not know what it is like to be on the other side of this diagnosis, but it is my sincerest hope that all of my loved ones will remember the vulnerability one feels at this stage, and will hereafter provide only calming sensitivity when dealing with the newly diagnosed.

 

Clearly it is ill advised to recount the number of people one knows who have been defeated by this dreadful disease, but unfortunately, this is the most common offense.  There are other well intentioned things people say like: “Your so healthy, you’ll beat this!”  Well you know, it’s damn hard to consider yourself healthy, no matter how fit you are, when you HAVE CANCER!

 

Here are some other important realizations.  Most caring people offer their prayers and thoughts and ask if there is anything they can do.  Many others advise staying positive or offer alternative therapies as if these are the key to success.  All these offers and advice, no matter how well intentioned, do little other than making the speaker feel empowered and supportive.  Although this may be important for you, for the person afflicted, it misses the mark.

 

Okay, so you have some idea of what not to say, here is my advice on what might be helpful. Bottom line: take the time to really listen.  The newly diagnosed individual needs to be able to process and work through the fear.  It will also be important to spend time with loved ones and to live life as if the malignancy has not engulfed everything and everyone.  One needs to laugh and feel loved.

 

It is hard to know what to say, but the key to success lies in listening to what’s really going on inside the person.  Skip the self soothing cliches and use real empathy.  Instead of asking if you can do something – do something.  Tell the person what he or she means to you.  Express your love – spend some time with the person doing something fun.  Go to a show, eat dinner out, go for a walk, or stop in for a visit and don’t feel the need to say the right thing.  Instead, ask questions and listen.  Be there, allow for the grief and fear without squelching it.  Focus on his or her feelings, not your own.  Take the risk of not knowing what to say.

 

To make yourself feel better, do some research and learn about the disease.  You may want to contribute to a worthy cause like Relay for Life and get your solace from that. Don’t expect to garner hero status – do it because it is a good thing to do.  Rally coworkers and friends, wear pink (or other appropriate symbolic color) as a tribute, and take a picture of the group and share it in loving support.  Actions speak louder than words.

 

It’s not magic – its what you do when some one is grieving or scared.  If you need more concrete guidance, read this or this.  Know that I am saying this not to offend those who have reached out in an errant fashion.  I fear that I may come across as ungrateful or unappreciative, but, if you really want to be helpful – take this constructive feedback and touch someone in a truly meaningful way.

 

 

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