Read an Excerpt
Leading Causes Of Life
Five Fundamentals To Change The Way You Live Your Life
By Gary Gunderson, Larry Pray
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2009 Gary Gunderson
All rights reserved.
I want to talk about life, not death. I now see that I've been trying to make that simple statement for at least 15 years.
In 1992 I was working at The Carter Center's Africa Program helping with new elections. A few months after being there, I was asked to start a new program at The Carter Center linking the powerful sciences of public health to the strengths of faith communities. The simple idea was that the 100 million or so people who show up in worship every month should have some impact on preventing premature death. Two-thirds of deaths before age 65 turn out to be preventable by fairly mundane social policies and pro-health personal decisions. It seemed obvious that religious folks were in positions to influence these policies and decisions at personal, family, neighborhood, and even national levels. Unknown to me, a grant had been written under which The Carter Center received $1.5 million dollars to create not a think tank, but a do tank that would go after congregations and hold them accountable to do all that they could do. President Carter called the program the Interfaith Health Program (IHP), and we immediately started having conversations with communities across the U.S. This eventually led across the globe to Europe and Africa, as well as to public health institutions like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at home in Atlanta.
It all made great sense to me. But I didn't know if the logic that made such sense to public health people would make any sense to those in the pews. I asked Lanny Peters, our preacher at Oakhurst Baptist Church, whether I could borrow the pulpit for a Sunday and try to preach a sermon on public health. Oakhurst is the kind of place where really odd questions tend to be treated respectfully, so he said yes. In many ways, this book is a long footnote to one of the things I said accidentally in that first sermon as: "We must make the choices that lead toward life." The words of Deuteronomy urging humanity to choose life, which had been gestating in my heart for so long, surfaced with startling urgency, even though I had no idea what I was asking and certainly no idea how much I didn't know. (See Deuteronomy 30:19b.)
I thought of that odd passage in Luke 19 about Jesus weeping because Jerusalem did not know what led to peace, I now know that we have little idea about what leads to life. And Jesus still weeps.
Choosing life is a lot murkier than fighting death. A stopped war is not the same as peace. Life is different than non-death.
We must make the choices that lead toward life.
But how do you choose life when all we really have are tools to fight death? How do we even talk about it?
Choosing life is a lot murkier than fighting death in exactly the same way that trying to wage peace is a lot murkier that trying to stop a war. A stopped war is not the same as peace. Life is different than non-death.
Twenty-first-century medicine has an extraordinary array of tools, techniques, and technologies that are effective in fighting death and disability. Many in my congregation, including my wife Karen, routinely save three or four lives a week using the astonishing gifts of modern medicine. Some of us have had our own lives saved a few times. We are filled with nothing but gratefulness for those gifts. We also know a lot about preventing all sorts of terrible bodily things, some of which we don't notice nearly as much, but should be even more grateful about. We even know how to eliminate some diseases like polio and smallpox. The combination of public health and modern medicine has resulted in the average U.S. life expectancy in 2005 being roughly 37 years longer than it was when my mother was born in 1908. Thirty-seven years times billions of people is a very big deal indeed. This trend has not happened everywhere in the world, of course. AIDS is reversing this dramatically in Africa. But the exception proves the possibility.
Connection brings about life; the lack of connection brings about loneliness.
Creation brings us to agency. Death is stationary, but life is not. One thing leads to the next. In the film Jurassic Park, the cloned dinosaurs were bred to be sterile. But to the astonishment of the scientists, they were reproducing anyway. "Life finds a way," said the mathematician with a smile. Life does indeed find a way. A congregation may either dwindle or may suddenly burst in growth; either way change is at work as life finds a way. It would be impossible to tell the stories of our lives without paying attention to the way one event sets the stage for the next, how one decision inspires the next, and how these transitions move our lives along. Sometimes we are the agents of change; sometimes life itself sweeps through our lives with the power of a hurricane, the diagnosis of cancer, or the loss of a job. Sometimes this concept of agency takes on serious tones, and sometimes it is as pure and powerful as play. Agency, for example, describes the way a breeze moves the arms of a mobile and the act of the artist that created the mobile, as well as the constellations that inspired the mobile crossing overhead each night.
Blessing provides the leverage that changes the way we view the world. It is something we can receive, it is something we can give away.
There has never been a sermon that wasn't intended to inspire agency. Clergy learn to gently smile when a parishioner says, "Nice sermon." They would so much rather hear, "I am going to forgive my neighbor" or "I am going to rearrange my priorities" or "I am going to see what I can do."
Needless to say, blessing is also a necessary part of life's language so eloquently rehearsed each week in worship services throughout the earth. How many times have we as clergy been asked to bless, and how many times in our callings have we asked someone, "Could you use a blessing?" No service ends without the bene dicte, the "good word," intended to send us into a "torn and troubled world" full of renewed hope, renewed meaning, renewed connections, and renewed courage. Blessing provides the leverage that changes the way we view the world. It is something we can receive, it is something we can give away, but we cannot bless ourselves.
Think about life and the story you find will inevitably nest in these five Leading Causes of Life: connection, coherence, agency, blessing, and hope. When you tell the story we believe you will be speaking the language of life.
We have seen how communities are energized when they find a sense of shared purpose known as coherence; when hope fuels the change known as healing; when blessings provide unimaginable opportunity; when way does indeed lead to way just as the poet Robert Frost said it would. We believe that you will find the Leading Causes of Life are constantly at work behind the scenes. The neighborhood may appear discouraged, but talk to its inhabitants and it doesn't take long to discover a depth of connection between neighbors and the presence of hope. When it seems like nothing is happening, it turns out that life is speaking, asking us to pay attention to its rhythms, its presence in our lives.
We believe you can discern and confirm this in your own life.
Could not the story of your life be told by asking: What connections have inspired you and shaped you along the way? Who neighbored you? Who were your teachers?
If you could trace the thread of coherence in your life, what world of meanings would you find? Sometimes the thread is easy to follow and detect; sometimes it is full of twists and turns and paradoxes that are all part of the search for meaning.
What have you done, and what has been done to you?
Where has hope come to your rescue?
Where in your life have you been blessed, and how have you blessed others?
Your story would take a long time to tell. So would the stories of the institutions that have shaped your life because they have also been touched by the five Leading Causes.
Along the way your story would be told both by what is and by what is not. You will think of the connections that vanished just when you thought they were the most reliable. You will review the actions that turned out to have nothing to do with life, even though at the time they seemed to be full of promise. Simply in the telling of your story you will recognize how integral the Leading Causes have been.
Study death no more. What do you think about when you speak life and study death no more?
That's the question that has set me on a journey toward life. I've wondered if there is any way to think about life with the precision and rigor that we use when we try to postpone death. Are there causes of life to organize our thoughts and guide our actions?
In science we learn something causes an action. In my case, a speech caused me to turn toward life and away from death.
Two years ago I shared the platform at an academic meeting on disparities held in Milwaukee. David Williams, a preeminent University of Michigan sociologist, named the evil of racial disparities so completely that death filled the space in all its malevolent power. Faced with the glacial weight of racism across the generations, what could I say next? It was so clear to me that if death defines our efforts, it wins every damn time. Why are we even surprised? As you know, a lot of people aren't surprised. They don't expect to win, and thus don't even show up to fight the big ones: race, class, greed, and environmental erosion. Why would they if death is going to get the last word?
I've wondered if there is any way to think about life with the precision and rigor that we use when we try to postpone death. Are there causes of life to organize our thoughts and guide our actions?
I junked my planned speech and decided that I wasn't going to talk about death any more. I moved to the podium humming a recycled Baptist spiritual, "I'm gonna study death no more, I'm gonna study death no more. I'm gonna lay my body down, and study death no more." Being the true son of my atonal father, I couldn't actually sing; but at least I could speak without notes, and did.
For the first time, that day I spoke about being accountable to life, and I noticed ten minutes into the speech, that people's posture changed. Academicians are not normally given to attentiveness; but this group was riveted, sitting up, leaning in, and listening. I've seen the same hopeful change every time I've had the chance to talk about life. I can assure you it isn't that I'm such a great speaker, but that the subject of life reminds people of what is most powerful. They remember the point of their lives, and it makes all the difference.
Our imagination is so filled with resisting death that we hardly know what else to think about. Fear crowds everything else, leaving no room in our imagination, no logic other than simple resistance, and no virtue other than tenacity. If President Franklin Roosevelt was right and the only thing we have to fear is fear itself, then how can we turn from fear and death to life? Like the speech that caused me to speak of life and use its language, I asked myself: Are there causes of life that can be known just as concretely?
Our imagination is so filled with resisting death that we hardly know what else to think about.
In health science it is a very big claim to say that something is a cause. It says, "This is what is really going on here. No matter what you wish or hope for, this is what causes that." It is in some ways a religious claim.
I'll skip the footnotes and save the intellectual scaffolding for later. I want to tell you that once our imagination turns away from studying death we begin to notice that death isn't the only thing going on at all. Life is going on, too.
It's not just us against death. It's life against death. And that turns out to be a fair fight. You aren't delusional to want a piece of that fight.
Every time I've spoken on this idea, someone comes up afterward and tells me about some body of research and practice that is about life. Almost always the group is working on the margins of its field, exploring and asking what could be, what should be, if life is to be both fully engaged and treasured. This idea is working on the margins of adolescent risks, suicide, oncology, churches, community development, and business management. You name it and there are all these positive paradigms churning away. You have to look, but they are there.
Once our imagination turns away from studying death we begin to notice that death isn't the only thing going on at all. Life is going on, too. It's not just us against death. It's life against death. And that turns out to be a fair fight.
A Difference in Perspective: Life's View
What I've found is that life is strong, vital, irrepressible, adaptive, and lively. It is enough to make you burst into laughter, delight, celebration, and dance. Hear the Easter joke: "Why do you search for the living among the dead?" And don't miss the punch line: "He's alive!"
If you want to learn something, teach it. For more than a year the Leading Causes of Life had been emerging as an idea through discussions, presentations, and even academic lectures. But no audience had been simultaneously confronted by it and the language of death until a Tuesday night in May, 2006, at the North 40 Cafe in Big Timber, Montana when Larry read a draft introduction to this book. He relates that evening's experience as follows:
People had heard the book would be called the Leading Causes of Life and were intrigued by the title. I had been living away from Big Timber for over a year while undergoing rehabilitation for my strokes, so the assembled crowd wanted to both learn about the book and catch up with me on what I'd been doing with the life I'd so nearly lost.
The opening line in my draft was, "Life has a language." The North 40 crowd was both a comfort and a challenge to me. I felt comforted because a community of neighbors surrounded me. The fact that they were well-versed in life challenged me because the words I read had to ring true. If they could not stand the test of authenticity when measured in the hearts of the listeners I knew I would be letting us all down.
As the reading went on, I sensed that in the very fabric of their lives they knew all about connection, coherence, agency, hope, and blessing. I came to a part of the Introduction which tried to distinguish the language of life from its counterpart, the language of death that is wrapped in hopelessness, loneliness, incoherence, action that can do no more than pinpoint what is wrong and is unable to speak a creative or healing word, and an utter absence of blessing. This language of death surrounds us on all sides. Turn on the news, read the headlines in this morning's paper; and the stories are written in the language of death that rivets our attention and can't help but distract us from life.
It is odd, perhaps even tragic that the language of life that asks us to live is so easily lost in the background noise of our culture. Indeed, speaking, much less singing, the language of life in a world in which so much is awry seems foolish. In this day and age, after all, one must be a realist. In fact, truth itself has become synonymous with getting "down to the bare-boned facts," and the abstract nouns that we have deemed the Leading Causes of Life seem almost Pollyannaish. The language of death accuses hope of covering up the facts, coherence as a matter of no more than circumstance, and blessing as a nice idea but one that can't change the world. There is a language of life, but the language of death is far easier to speak.
Not long ago Gary and I received the following e-mail outlining Montana's social inequities. Each sentence is an indictment begging for a governor, a legislature, a church, a city, a county, to come to its senses:
"Nationally, Montana ranks 45th in per capita income, 44th in population, 5th in teen death rate, 4th in size, 3rd in alcohol related traffic fatalities, 2nd in suicides, and 1st in fatal vehicle crashes on rural roads. Every 48 hours someone in Montana commits suicide. These incidences are particularly high in rural areas where social isolation is common and access to mental health services is limited or non-existent. One in five Montana families has a family member affected with a serious mental illness. Stigma and discrimination keep many affected individuals from disclosing their illness. Research studies have shown that 90 percent of the people who commit suicide suffer from undiagnosed, untreated, or inadequately treated mental illness.
"The Montana Department of Corrections (DOC), one of the largest treatment providers for mental illness, will soon become one of the largest chemical dependency providers in the state. Currently there are more people living with mental illness housed in Montana jails and prisons than in the state mental health facilities. In a survey conducted in 2000, a total of 12 percent of Montana's 2,233 inmates housed in facilities responding to the survey were in counseling, and 21.4 percent were receiving psychotropic medications."
Excerpted from Leading Causes Of Life by Gary Gunderson, Larry Pray. Copyright © 2009 Gary Gunderson. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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