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"Siegel, a medical doctor, presents his outlook on how everyone can create & maintain optimum physical, emotional, & spiritual health."
What Would Bernie Do Now?
One day over lunch a woman I work with told me her secret for dealing with life's difficulties. This woman does not have the kind of problem I usually write about. She does not have cancer, AIDS or multiple sclerosis. She is not living a life of doubt, guilt, blame or shame.
Quite the opposite, she is healthy and her life is a success story. She has a loving family, enjoys her work, and has risen to the top of her profession. She came to my talks and books because we work together and she'd heard my stories about how you can change your life and find peace, love and healing.
Still, she and I have learned that all people have problems, no matter how successful they appear to be. As we were talking over lunch, my friend told me that her twenty-year-old son was troubled about some decisions he had to make, and she was uncertain how to help him find solutions without meddling. She said, "I struggled with the problem for a few days, and then I used a technique I have discovered for dealing with uncertainty."
"What is that?" I asked.
"These days," she said, "when I find myself in a tough spot, I ask myself, 'Well, what would Bernie do now?' "
"So do I," I told her.
Life is difficult. We all face adversity. We all find ourselves in perplexing situations. We try things our parents and teachers taught us, and sometimes those techniques work. Other times our old methods for dealing with adversity don't work. When the problem doesn't go away or get resolved, those with an instinct for survival realize they are going to have to find new ways to respond. How can you respond in a new way? How can you change yourself?
One of the best ways to change is to act as if you are the person you want to become. When you behave as if you are a different person, you change on a very basic level -- even your physiology changes. When actors and actresses perform, their body chemistry is altered by the roles they play.
You can survive tough situations and even turn them to your advantage by acting as if you are the person you want to be. When you act like that person you can become that person. The hard parts are deciding who you want to become, being willing to rehearse until you become that person, and forgiving yourself until you do.
I have tried a number of different roles in my life all at the same time, and it doesn't work. The happiest and most sensible choice was to be one person. I decided to become a surgeon named Bernie who writes books and gives seminars to teach people what he has learned and is still learning about how to deal with life's difficulties.
Bernie came into being in 1974. I was in a lot of emotional pain in those days. I was a pediatric and general surgeon at Yale. I had a wonderful wife and five beautiful children. My life was a success by most standards, but I was unhappy because the job of being a surgeon was very painful. Like most doctors, I had been trained to view medicine as a mechanical profession and to maintain an emotional distance from sick patients and their families. I treated people's diseases and shielded myself from their lives, and I was so miserable and in so much pain behind the wall I'd built that I was considering leaving medicine. I wanted to find another career in which I would have more contact with people and could deal with my feelings and theirs.
I struggled with the loneliness and futility I felt at work. If I were a veterinarian, I'd at least be able to hug my patients. I decided that before I gave up on medicine I would try a different way of doctoring. I would allow myself to care about the patients I was caring for. Once I'd taken that step, I quickly began to see how bizarre it is to view medicine as a profession in which you stand apart from people. Yes, a surgeon deals with cancer, but these cancers are growing on people, and these people are facing great challenges and an enormous range of experiences and emotions. A surgeon is surrounded by people who are sick, discouraged, afraid, embittered, dying -- but also courageous, loving, wise, compassionate and alive.
A doctor is in a position to help people when they need it most -- to teach them, when they confront their mortality, that many of the lessons learned will be gifts, not problems. He is also in a position to learn a great deal about being human. But to learn from the people he is working with, a physician must first learn to ignore the noninvolvement credo taught in medical schools. He must begin to view patients as people rather than cases. To care about the people he is treating, and to show it. To love them, even, and to let them know that a doctor is a human being who needs love, too.
So Dr. Siegel came out from behind his desk -- literally. I pushed my desk against the wall, shaved my head, and asked patients to call be by my first name. I became Bernie, and my world changed. It was now rewarding being a doctor and helping people to live.
As Bernie, I began listening to the people I was treating and learning from them -- especially the ones who were dealing with life-threatening illnesses. What I learned from my patients about lifestyle changes and survival behavior was so exciting to me as a doctor that I soon began sharing it with other patients. We organized a group called EcaP (Exceptional Cancer Patients), and I began giving talks and writing books about what I had learned.
The message I deliver as Bernie is not original. I learned it listening to my patients and then by combining their wisdom with the teachings of spiritual leaders and prophets of the past. I also learned from the wisdom of more contemporary guides: in the books and letters people wrote sharing their experiences, and in spiritual stories, myths and tales.
This book is a continuation of the work I began when I became Bernie. It is a collection of stories about how to deal with life's difficulties. Most of the people in these stories have not had the great wake-up call: that is, they are not facing life-threatening illnesses. So in a sense, this book is preventive medicine. It is a prescription for living that gives you effective and healthy ways of dealing with the adversity that occurs in everyone's life. I want to help you learn to accept your mortality before something catastrophic brings you face-to-face with the end of your life.
Excerpt from Prescriptions for Living. Copyright © 1998 by Bernie S. Siegel, M.D. Reprinted with permission from HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved.