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When Your Life Has a Mission, Your Heart is Happy: Staying Connected to the Tree of Life

All living things are interconnected through the great tree of life, and through our connections with other life, flows a vital force that sustains each of us like the sap of a tree sustains its leaves. Here’s the critical factor: no outside entity determines whether or not you are still important to the web of life, you do. It’s your own being, conscious or subconscious, that judges whether you are still a dynamic life force that needs to continue to prosper. Living with a sense of purpose sends a signal to your brain that says, “I still matter.”

       Harold is a good friend who inspires me with his passion for life. At age 89, he continues to work full time, though he retired from his paying job 10 years ago. Now he invests a great deal of his talent, energy, time and money into an organization called “Wayside Waifs.”

        Harold is the chief executive officer of this not-for-profit animal shelter that is dedicated to finding loving and safe homes for untold numbers of stray or unwanted dogs and cats. Each morning Harold awakens knowing that his mission is making a difference for our community; bringing love, security and companionship for thousands of animals each year, and perhaps even more benefits to the kind and generous people who adopt these pets. His eyes still sparkle with vitality and vigor, and he walks with a spring in his step. He thinks, acts, exercises, and lives like a man 30 years younger.

        Harold will tell you that his love for family, friends, and Wayside Waifs is the driving force that fuels his passion for life. When he asked me during his most recent office visit, “How’s my health, Doc?” I replied, “Harold, if we are not someday celebrating your 100thbirthday together, I will feel asthough I have failed you.”

          Maybe we all can’t contribute on the scale that Harold does, but even a little investment in the life around us has the power to bring strength and vitality to our lives. All living things are interconnected through the great tree of life, and through our connections with other life, flows a vital force that sustains each of us like the sap of a tree sustains its leaves. Whether or not we are aware of it, each one of us is woven into this network of life; and if we ignore this reality and become isolated and too self-centered, we grow ill and unhappy. Scientists studying this issue find that lonely, cut off, and depressed people tend to be unhealthy and die younger. In other words, if you lose interest in life, life may lose interest in you. An isolated individual is a dead-end in the grand scheme of life. On the other hand, individuals contributing to and striving for the welfare of others is the force that allows life to continue to thrive. Through its profound instinctive wisdom, life has a way of investing energy and vitality in those who are contributing positively to their community of life, and withdrawing it from those who are not.

Mission

         The islanders of Okinawa have an average lifespan of 86 years, making them one of the longest living and healthiest cultures in the world. Okinawans suffer 80 percent less heart disease, 75 percent less breast and prostate cancer, and 33 percent less dementia than their counterparts here in the U.S. The Okinawans attribute their exceptional longevity and vigor to a concept they call “ikagai,” or having a strong sense of purpose. They feel that an ongoing personal mission or destiny is essential for staying youthful and strong as they grow older.

         Certainly, their traditional diet rich in vegetables and fish, and an active way of life, are factors in the Okinawans’ excellent health. Yet, the people of this remarkable culture feel their longevity is most closely tied to “ikagai,” literally translated as “that which makes one’s life worth living.” A cause or a passion bigger than ourselves can help us transcend the selfish, introspective nature of an isolated human life, and can bring us lasting vitality and exceptional longevity. The Okinawans have a reciprocal support network of family, friends and neighbors, and this brings a sense of belonging to these people. They tend to put family first and prioritize the cultivation and maintenance of lifelong friendships and social bonds.

          My mother, Leatrice, is a nurse by profession, and nurturing others has always come naturally for her. When my father passed away five years ago she lost her best friend and soul mate. Understandably, she was depressed and anxious for a year or so afterwards, but she gradually regained her spark by reinvesting her life in others. She volunteers regularly at both the nursing home and the church in our hometown of Grafton, North Dakota, a vibrant little community of 3,500 people near the Minnesota and Canadian borders. She regularly entertains company or travels to visit her family and friends, cares for a dog, and loves to garden (during the four months of the year that the temperature stays above freezing). Recently, she confided to me that she believes that she has been blessed with good health so that she can be there for many of her friends and neighbors who are getting older and sometimes find themselves struggling with serious health issues.  Leatrice has a gentle, happy, and compassionate manner, and she spends her days providing good humor, hope, and kindhearted support for her friends and family, and in this way she finds strength and peace of mind for herself. To me, she has always seemed like the closest thing I have ever known to an angel, though I suppose it’s natural for a person to feel that way about his or her own mother.

         Here’s the critical factor: no outside entity determines whether or not you are still important to the web of life, you do. It’s your own being, conscious or subconscious, that judges whether you are still a dynamic life force that needs to continue to prosper. Living with a sense of purpose sends a signal to your brain that says, “I still matter,” and this engenders attitudes and actions that resonate throughout your being, revitalizing your body, reinvigorating your mind, realigning your hormones, and helping you to thrive.

       Want to grow stronger? Give your energy to someone or some cause beyond yourself. Want to be happier? Stop worrying so much about your own self-interests and try to make someone else’s life happier or easier. You don’t have to change the world; you just need to call your friend. My father-in-law Leonard, who lived to be 94 years old, used to say, “Keep on walkin’ and keep on squawkin’; and don’t look back.” Indeed, a recent study found that people who made a habit of visiting with acquaintances, either in person or by phone, were significantly protected from Alzheimer’s disease. Take good care of the people you love. Happiness doesn’t come from possessions or power, but instead from the relationships you develop with the people in your life whom you love and respect.

        Tend a garden, or walk your dog, or feed the birds, or give your elderly neighbor a ride to the grocery store. You get what you give—it’s one of the fundamental laws of natureComputer Technology Articles, and it is a force that animates life. Tap into it and you will thrive and prosper; ignore it and you may wither like the leaf that becomes disconnected from its tree.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR


Dr. James O’Keefe is a practicing preventive cardiologist at Cardiovascular Consultants of the Saint Luke’s Mid-America Heart Institute located in Kansas City, MO.  He is actively involved with clinical research, has published over 200 peer-reviewed manuscripts, and is the lead author of several books including The Forever Young Diet & Lifestyle.



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