In 2005, when I first held my first grandchild, I carried her into a quiet corner and softly sang Tender Shepherd. “Let me help you,” says the song. “Let me help you in any way that would serve” was my pledge to this beautiful child.
When we first hold a newborn in our arms, we cry out of pure joy at the wonder of their being. We hold, we coo, we marvel. We ask nothing of it. We pray only that it is healthy.
We don’t have to work at this love, it just floods us. And it floods us with a very special healing power, the power to open our hearts to a new being, to open our minds to a world with this being in it, and to open our bodies to the chemistry of love.
Soon enough we will ask this child to nurse, to sleep, to fit into the web of family life but for now, we ask nothing. If we are lucky, unconditional love is how we enter this world.
If we’re lucky, it’s also how we leave it. At birth, we need someone to catch us and hold us and at death we hope there will be someone to hold us and let us go.
So, my first thought about the healing power of love is that unconditional love is the baseline we carry with us and long to return to throughout our lives.
Will you accept me just as I am? At birth we don’t yet have expectations of us; at death, there are no more expectations.
It’s in between that gets complicated.
Like all of us, my life has had its complications. Love and loss, deep betrayal and deep holding, opportunity and set-back. But the biggest complication was when I was told I had lung cancer. Exhausted by shock and incapable of having individual conversations with those I loved, I asked them to come support me all at once.
I invited them to a love-in.
They came pouring down the hill in twos and threes, bearing platters of food, picnic tables, loudspeakers, guitars, and a washtub bass. I had needed to hug my friends and 125 of them answered the call. We hugged and cried, sang and danced, and then they encircled our family in a giant group hug and sang “I’ve got a never-ending love for you.”
At 5 p.m., when it began, I had worried that I would be too sick to stand for the two hours it was scheduled to last. Yet six hours later, when it actually ended, I felt exhilarated, glowing, and through every fiber of my body, happy. What had happened in between? There had been no medical intervention but there had certainly been a healing intervention.
And I learned my second lesson: Love makes you feel better.
It’s not that I thought I deserved to have so many caring friends and family come to my aide on a Sunday afternoon. In fact, I had spent much of my life in frenetic service to others to overcome a fundamental sense of unworthiness. I had believed that asking for help and taking care of myself were somehow selfish. But my friends had just given me a gift of love with no strings attached; they offered me unconditional love; I didn’t need to earn it or be worthy of it, just to accept it. Something deep inside me felt freed.
My third lesson: To receive the love of others, we have to believe we are worthy of love.
The day after the love-in, I learned that my cancer was incurable. I might have a year if the new palliative drug they offered worked on me—and as little as three months if it didn’t.
I felt like I was kicked off a cliff. I entered freefall. I desperately tried to right myself mid-air but continued to ask the wrong questions. “What are the odds of my seeing this nine-month-old in my arms enter kindergarten?” I asked my doctor. “One percent.” he replied.
This was just not good enough. I desperately wanted to see this little girl grow up. Our children encouraged me to hope. I asked myself “How do I get into the One Percent Club?”
In May of 2006, no one had an answer for that. With no answers, I focused on the questions and asked them over and over in my mind:
- If my doctor’s medicine cabinet isn’t enough to take me where I want to go, what else is in Life’s medicine cabinet?
- What is our innate capacity to heal and can we repair it once it’s damaged?
- Do love, joy, wonder, and gratitude heal my body at the same time they heal my spirit?
- Can my mind influence my body’s healing?
Thinking back to the love-in, I started with what made me feel better. Every day, I woke up asking myself, “Where will I find love and joy today?” I devoted myself full-time to healing.
My fourth lesson: Love fuels the will to live, but we have to actively tend the fire.
Now, why did I think this would work? I didn’t. I simply reasoned that as long as I could make myself feel better, I wasn’t feeling worse.
But I believe I was onto something that has since been backed up by research. I gave my doctors the job of lessening my tumor burden, but I gave myself the job of boosting my immune system and keeping my healthy cells healthy. Love and joy release powerful chemistry in the body that does just that.
When the body is in fight or flight mode, it shuts down the immune system in favor of giving our hearts, lungs, and muscles the power to run away. But when we love, the immune system ramps up, knowing intimacy might bring us in range of virus and bacteria. So, each time I loved and felt joy, I let loose endorphins, enkaphelins, oxytocin, and dopamine, inner chemistry that signaled my immune system to get to work.
My fifth lesson? Love is medicine.
How could I count on being able to dose myself with love every day? Wasn’t that a preposterous ask of Life and a burden to those around me?
I learned that love isn’t something that happens to you or that comes only from others, love derives from our response to it. Love is an indistinguishable loop of giving and receiving. That meant loving the ones I was with now with my full heart, and reconnecting with those I had loved before. It meant forgiving and asking for forgiveness. Thanking and being thanked. Remembering my strengths and being grateful to those who had helped me build them.
And of course, it’s not only people that evoke love in us. Our love for nature and beauty, for awe and wonder, for exploration and learning also bring on healing chemistry. My brain became more elastic as it learned to cope with uncertainty and the unknown. My body strengthened as I walked three to five miles every day in the woods. Well-being became my new norm.
My sixth lesson on the healing power of love? Dose frequently. Absorb deeply.
The Beatles’ “I Love You More” is what I’ve sung to my husband, Kelly, for 43 years. Romantic love is a wonderful infusion of healing chemistry. Dopamine brings us pleasure and joy; norepinephrine excites us, causes obsessive thinking, and clouds our rational judgement. We drank the romantic love cocktail and were engaged in only months, married within a year. We still drink that cocktail often.
Marriages grow and evolve as the people within them grow and evolve. The chemistry of love naturally changes from pleasure inducing hormones that encourage sex, to the bonding chemistry of oxytocin so we can raise our resulting children in safety and trust. This is a good thing. Oxytocin helps our socialization, immune system, and has the potential to increase the plasticity of our brain.
Our minds, however, don’t always live up to that potential. We don’t keep up with the rate of change. External stresses impact us. Regrets, misunderstandings, and slights, accumulate.
When I got sick, Kelly and I didn’t want any more of that. In one week-end we lay down anything from our past that wouldn’t serve our future. We set out to make sacred ground between us—a complete healing environment around the clock. We committed to make each day what we called “an Emily Day,” in honor of the character in Thornton Wilde’s “Our Town,” who asks, “Does anyone ever realize life while they live it…every, every minute?”
As a result, we changed our minds. In the face of the overwhelming uncertainty, there was no point in arguing who was right—neither of us had a clue. In the face of the looming unknown, it was far better to have two minds than one.
And we changed our bodies. Kelly learned how powerful his hands were in supporting my healing. Just holding me was healing, but then he learned two Asian practices of healing touch: Jin Shin Jyutzu and Reiki. They calmed me, restored my equilibrium and gave me energy. I felt love pouring out of his hands. He was more than a partner walking alongside me on this cancer journey, he moved into the arena of my healers.
So my seventh lesson is: Love transforms us.
As amazing as it was to have this healing capacity right by my side, Kelly still couldn’t provide all of the healing that I needed, nor could he keep me calm in the middle of the night. I had to find healing resources within myself. Although I had no training in meditation or even prayer, I was amazed and fortunate to find an inner sanctuary quickly, complete with an inner spirit of pure love, compassion, and forgiveness. My conversations with this inner spirit brought me comfort and peace.
There’s something you need to know about me before this next part: I used to be a dancer, a choreographer, and a director of high school musicals. I know your inner world doesn’t look like mine. When I dreamed and meditated, I saw vivid images of goddesses, healing dancers, personified organs—even my cells. I didn’t guide my meditations, it felt like a conversation, like Skyping my cells. They told me when I was safe and when I was in danger, when the cancer was in retreat and when it was taking over the neighborhood. Over time, I realized that these inner conversations were accurately communicating the state of my body as they foretold and correlated with my CT scans.
So, I learned to trust them to guide me in my medical decision-making. They told me when to choose an experimental treatment over a conventional one. They told me when to decline medical treatment and do Qigong and Reiki instead. And they told me when to take the greatest risks of all and go for lifesaving, but never-attempted, surgery.
So, my eighth lesson: Love is within us.
Thanks to western treatments, eastern energy modalities, and love’s power, I am still here. Am I cured? “I don’t know,” said my doctor just last week. But I know that instead of three months, I have had 11 amazing years. I have watched our children become wonderful parents and welcomed four more grandchildren to this world by singing Tender Shepherd.
But as Kelly and I began to tell our story, we saw that our experience was not a prescription. Drugs aren’t available for every condition, and they don’t work on us equally. Not everyone has access to alternative therapies. And love, while healing, is not always curative. The fiercest love of life does not mean we don’t die. But what moved us was how often we heard: “I can’t do what you did because I don’t have a Kelly in my life.” Or “I’ve moved and don’t have my friend network any longer.” Or “The people I used to list as my emergency contacts have either moved away or died.”
We had thought that my need for social support was an aberration of an inveterate extrovert; but new research shows that social support is integral to all our health:
- Good social support, as in a tight circle of friends, helps us survive illnesses like cancer, live longer lives in general, and be happier during those lives.
- Negative social support, like a bad marriage or emotional trauma, has comparable impact on our health to smoking and alcohol misuse and is more damaging than the lack of exercise or obesity that we hear so much about.
- No social support is just as damaging: A recent ad by AARP linked social isolation to the equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It changes our genome in profound ways. And unfortunately, we Americans are getting more isolated. In the 80s, only 20 percent of us reported feeling lonely and now 40 percent do.
My ninth lesson: We heal best in loving community.
So, three years ago, Kelly and I wanted to give back to our community and created a space where anyone who needed social and emotional support—and that’s all of us—could come and receive it—for free.
Healing Circles has met a deep community need. We started with a pilot—one circle for cancer in October 2015—and now have more than 60 circles, classes, or events each month. We have 600 visits every month—a pretty astounding number for such a small community.
It turns out, we humans love to:
- feel welcomed
- be treated with kindness and respect
- be listened to with compassion and curiosity
- have our choices in healing and in life be honored without others always judging us, trying to fix or save us, or tell us we are wrong
- continue to find meaning and purpose as we age
When we can provide this safety for each other, we can learn to trust each other. These are the conditions that allow healing to occur.
As a place, Healing Circles is a secular sanctuary in which we explore together how to heal, live, and age well. It’s a community center for singing, socializing, and sitting in silence. Anyone can come for a circle of two, each sacred ground where we can share authentically and listen with deep attention.
As Henri Nouwen said: “When we honestly ask ourselves which persons in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.”
That is the friend we can all be for one another.
And that is my tenth and (for today at least) last lesson on the healing power of love: We can create healing sanctuary together.