“On Your Feet”

            WVXU public radio, 91.7 FM


J. I. I’m Julie Isphording. You’re listening to “On Your Feet.” … Here with me today is … Dr. Nancy Spence.  She wrote the book, the wonderful book, Life Medicine:  Wisdom for Extraordinary Living…. Welcome to the show.


N. S.  Thank you. It’s nice being here.


J. I.  Right off the bat, tell me what the book is all about. Someone goes to [the bookstore.] They pick it up.  What in the world are they going to find?


N.S. There’s a cartoon at the beginning of the book that says, “In school, we learn how to do everything, except how to live.” So in a nutshell, what Life Medicine is about is how to live a passionate, fulfilling, meaningful life, one that we won’t regret when we get to the end.


J. I. Yes, you want to be remembered for something. And you should decide right now what you want to be remembered for.  Now, what possessed you to write this?


N.S. Well, Life Medicine started out as a collection of readings and exercises … that I put together for a course I taught at the University of Cincinnati.


And, after a class ended, I would often get notes from graduates telling me the course had impacted their lives—had changed their lives—and they would also tell me that their friends and parents wanted copies of the book and that they themselves were returning to its pages time and time again. So it became clear to me … that more than students might be interested in the thinkers and doers within the pages of Life Medicine.


J. I. It sounds like you taught a class like “Life 101.”


N.S. Yes.


J. I. And that’s not really taught in college. You’re taught things you really never use again. But here was real-life stuff.


N.S. I know when I was in school, I would be exposed to courses in literature and mythology and psychology and philosophy and religion—those courses that do teach us about the variety of ways that one can live life.  What I discovered with many of my students is that they were on the road to a very worthwhile career, but that they had not been exposed to this information.


J. I. Well, what does matter in a well-lived life? What really does matter?


N.S. Well, in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, we’ve heard people talking about taking their families and their relationships more seriously, taking their spiritual development more seriously. We’ve heard people question the work they’ve been doing in the world.  And we’ve seen a real outpouring of reaching out to others. 


I would say the specifics of what matters will differ for each of us.  But, in order to find out what that is, we have to stop and to listen. 


There’s a cartoon in Life Medicine that shows a hamster running on a wheel in its cage over the caption, “I’m too busy to have time for anything important.”  … Yet Dawna Markova in her new book I Will Not Die An Unlived Life, says it well. She says: “Each of us is here to give something only we can offer. But how can you ever know your truth unless you slow down and spend time in your own quiet company.”


J. I. It’s so hard to do.


N.S. It’s hard to do. 


Psychologist Jean Houston tells a story I’ve enjoyed about being charged by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to interview astronauts when they came back from their journeys into space. And she says that she used every technique she could think of to get them to talk about what it was like out there in space. But they had very little to say.


 Finally, one astronaut spoke up and said, “Dr. Houston. You’re asking the wrong question. It’s not about what went on out there. It’s about what went on in here.” And he pointed to his heart. 


And I would say that, if we’re not listening, if we’re not connecting with the deeper currents of our lives and making sure we’re not doing what’s important for our lives, we are too busy and we may end up getting to the ends of our lives and realize we missed the whole point of our own journeys. 


So, as psychologist Rollo May used to say …, “If you don’t listen to your own being, you have betrayed yourself. And also you’ve betrayed your community by not making your contribution to the whole.” 


And I think, in the aftermath of September 11, it becomes even more important that each of us listens to what it is that we are to be contributing to the fabric of the whole.


J. I. Beautifully put…. And I did read this book cover to cover. I’ve had it for a while. I have to confess: it’s all dog-eared. I have little marks all over it. And I read it all the time for inspiration. 


I did want to question, though, one of the chapters. It’s on death, and this is a book about living a passionate, extraordinary life. And I want to know what is it that possessed you to put a chapter there on death?


N.S.  Well, Cat Stevens—you may remember his song “Oh Very Young”—said, “You’re dancin’ on this earth for only a short while and while you want to last forever, you know you never will.”  I think the trauma of September 11 made it clear to us we won’t live forever and we never know when our end might come. Life is “like a candle flickering in a strong wind,” as the Buddha said 2600 years ago.


The thing is, I think many of us—at least some of us—until 9/11 hadn’t been living as if we knew life is fragile and life is fleeting because, if we had, we would be focusing less on the things that don’t matter and more on the things that do.


Leo Buscaglia, who was a professor at the University of Southern California, used to write on his students’ papers:  “You say if you only had five days left to live, you’d tell so-and-so that you love them. Why not tell them now!!  Death, he would tell his students, teaches us that we don’t have forever, that we should not put things off.


There’s a story in Life Medicine by meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg who once led a silent retreat in Hawaii when, she said, the phone began to ring and to ring and to ring And finally, she went to answer it to hear from Hawaii’s civil defense that a tsunami, a huge tidal wave, was headed straight for the retreat center.


And she said to the civil-defense people, “You know, there are 70 people here, and we don’t have enough vehicles to get them out, and the road, anyway, goes right along the coast.”  So the largest tidal wave in history was about to hit, and they couldn’t get above sea level.  So she and her 70 retreatants sat in silent meditation waiting to die.


In the end, nothing happened.  The tidal wave apparently missed the island altogether. Yet, she says, “We all had a radically different perspective about the ordinary difficulties of our lives. For a while, we all woke up. We all woke up to what mattered most.”


So, I think that is why death is important in a book on how to live passionately and well.


J. I. Excellent.  We’re talking to Dr. Nancy Spence. She wrote the book Life Medicine:  Wisdom for Extraordinary Living…. I’m Julie Isphording. You’re listening to “On Your Feet” here on WVXU and the X-Star Network.




J. I. Today we are talking to Dr. Nancy Spence. She wrote the book Life Medicine:  Wisdom for Extraordinary Living--incredible volume of very inspirational stories to really help us live the life we might imagine, want to imagine, wish we could. 


Now there’s a story in Life Medicine about this boy … seduced by the lure of fast rivers. What in the world does this story have to teach us about how to live well?


N.S. Well, let me share the story with you.  It’s about a kid growing up near a big city who says he was seduced by the allure of fast rivers. So he bought himself a rubber raft and launched himself down the rapids of a nearby river. And he says that he was so electrified by the experience that he decided to get himself a summer job as a guide on the Colorado River, an experience that, again, blew him away.  So he upped the ante again and, this time, when he graduated from college, he found a way to get himself to Ethiopia in Africa, a place, he said, where the rivers were so wild and so full of crocodiles, snakes, insects and deadly rapids that they had never been run before, at least by Westerners. Again, he said, this experience was so remarkable. He said, “I couldn’t accept doing anything else with my life after that. The sights, the smells, the exotic languages swept me away. I came home,” he said, “determined to make a living doing this.”


Well, he did. Richard Bangs is his name, and he founded one of the oldest adventure-travel companies in the world—Mountain Travel Sobek (some of you may know of it) and today is editor-at-large of Expedia.com, the on-line travel site.


And when I hear his story … I’m reminded of what the father of American psychology William James said. He said, “when we can say ‘this is it; this is the real me’--only then do we feel deeply alive.”   And Richard Bangs obviously found that ‘real me’ and then found some way to integrate it—to weave it—into the fabric of his life.


And I would say that that’s the way we all should be finding our life’s work:  asking ourselves that question, “What makes me feel truly alive?” Then we will know we are doing the work that we came into this world to do.


Unfortunately, I think the way most of us approach our life’s work is the way we choose food at a smorgasbord.  We survey what’s already spread out in front of us—what the job predictions say about where the jobs will be ten years from now, or what our family suggests might be a good career for us, or where the status and prestige is, or where we’ve gotten strokes in school.  And then we say, “Ok, I’ll take that:  I’ll be a lawyer or I’ll be a firefighter or beautician, or whatever.”


Instead, what we should be doing, according to the experts in this book, is asking ourselves, “What am I hungry for? What is calling me?”  And of course, “vocation” comes from that Latin word “vocare,” if I remember my Latin correctly, which means “to call.”   The best-selling author Stephen King put it this way.  He said,  We click like a Geiger counter” when we come close to whatever we’re built to do.


There’s a wonderful story that’s reprinted in Life Medicine about a Cincinnati painter O’Leary Bacon that I love to tell. I have not met her, but I’m very eager to meet her. When she was 46, she packed up a good salary, she packed up a job as the manager of public welfare for counties in northern Kentucky, she packed up her position on the board of United Way to establish herself as a serious artist of African-American history. 


And, from what I’ve read of her story, it wasn’t easy, especially in the beginning.  She, for example, had a commission from a large city to do some paintings, and, after she’d bought her supplies, the money fell through, and she was nearly evicted from her home.  So to pay the bills, she worked at nights as a janitor in order to paint by day and to welcome the busloads of student that come to her Over-the-Rhine studio to hear about black history and black art.


She says, “I feel like I’m on a spiritual quest. I feel like I’m on a mission of faith. My paintings are meant to heal the souls of African Americans.” And whenever I reread her story, I think of the saying, “Carefully observe the way your heart draws you (in other words ‘listen’) and then choose that path with all your strength.” 


And my experience working with many, many students and others over the years is that oftentimes we may know the way that our heart is calling us, but we also know that there will be a price to pay, as there was for her, and we may have to give up something in the process. But, ultimately, that’s the only way that we will feel fully fulfilled is that we are listening and taking the risks to live out our life.


J. I.  Huge difference between making a living and making a life. Yes.  What do you think about the huge outpouring of giving that has occurred since the days of September 11?


N.S. We’ve been living in a culture the last few decades, I would say, that has encouraged us to look out for #1.  And, as a result of that, the real human need we have to reach beyond ourselves, I believe, has been left unfulfilled, and we’ve tried to fill that void with the wrong things in many cases—with consumerism, with addictions, whatever.


Yet, considerable evidence—scientific evidence—supports the spiritual and psychological teachings of many traditions that reaching out is really vital to our well-being. The way a Hindu proverb puts it is, “help your brother’s boat across and your own will reach the shore.”


And we’ve all heard those stories involving the World Trade Center:  the Jewish man staying with his paraplegic Catholic friend who couldn’t escape one of the towers; the man carrying the pregnant woman down a flight of stairs; the firefighters, the medical personnel, the police working to exhaustion to find survivors; the passengers on the doomed jet risking their lives. And, that’s seems to be what being human is really all about.


There’s a story in Life Medicine about another jet that crashed into the Potomac one cold January morning. And rescuers threw life rafts from helicopters, and there was one man who kept catching this life raft and throwing it to other passengers in those icy January waters. And rescuers, when they came to throw it to him, he had drowned. 


And, of course, the question is, “what prompts a person to give up his life in this way?”


J. I.  Dr. Nancy Spence. She wrote this wonderful book. It’s full of great stories that she’s been sharing with us today…


I’m Julie Isphording … Thanks for listening. This is “On Your Feet” on WVXU and the X-Star Network.