An Interview with Bernie Siegel

by Randy Peyser




Randy Peyser:   Can you tell us about your new book, How to Live Between Office Visits  "A Guide to Life, Love, and Health

Bernie Siegel:  The original reason I wanted to write this book was to share the information from so many wonderful people that we meet, and how inspiring they are, and how they teach you about living. 

The other was that everybodyís got troubles. If you ask people ďIs life fair?Ē everybody shouts "NO!" (at least the majority). So itís teaching people that life is fair, but difficult.  And if you learn how to deal with the difficulties, then life doesnít seem difficult anymore.  The teachers are the ones who know how to deal with their labor pains. They know how to deal with their imprisonment. 

If we have labor pains, but use it as our choice, we give birth to ourselves. That way we are going through things that we are choosing to go through.  Now that can mean difficulties in life, or health, it doesnít matter what it is, but, if itís your choice to go through something, you come out a better person. Then it is worth going through. Do not go through pain for someone else. That leads to much more difficulty. Then, they have the power, theyíre putting you through things and youíre the victim. 

The other reason for the book was there are people who are imprisoned in bodies that they canít control or manage.  And they're still full of joy and love. You learn from these people. They're people who get well, emotionally and physically while still in prison.  They're people who may have had parts of their bodies blown off, quadriplegic, AIDS, whatever, you name it, and they are incredible people to be with. They really teach you about the joy of life.  In a sense, it's sharing what these people have taught me, and what I have learned personally, too, because I am very introspective, meditative, and I am very open to listening to the things that help me have a more joyful life amidst all the difficulties I run into. 

RP:  Can you share a personal experience of someone who has touched you deeply?

I met a young woman named Sue Ann. She has cerebral palsy, meaning that she has no control over the motions of any parts of her body. To talk to her, you need an interpreter to listen to her grunts and groans, to read her lips and tell what sheís saying.  In order to send you a letter she needs to be tied in the chair and gagged, so she doesnít drool and bang into the word processor.  She types with her nose. She says she got a new machine recently that might work with her toe. Thatís the courage it takes for her to send you a letter. Sheís thirty-eight years old. She has also developed cancer. Her parents have died and she is no longer willing to live in this body and to put up a fight. But her comment wasnít ďDo you have Jack Kevorkianís phone number?Ē her comment was, ďIíve decided Iím gonna play until I die.Ē 

Thatís the kind of people Iím talking about. She inspires me. When she sent me a Christmas card, which is made up of a page long poem that she wrote, the last line was ďLetís spend Christmas with Jesus, helping people less fortunate than we.Ē I think thatís the part that you begin to realize, these people are fortunate, beautiful, loving people. Some people might see them and say ďOh, if you can do that with your life, then I shouldn't complain about my life.Ē  Or ďYou look so awful and have so many troubles, I guess Iíll continue on.Ē That is not what their life is about. Their life is about teaching you to love and to have joy, not to just survive because somebody else is in tougher shape than you are. And, Iíd say, over and over, all these people are just living each day, theyíre not trying not to die, theyíre trying to contribute to life, and just live NOW. 

RP:  It sounds, from what youíre saying, that theyíve given up the fear of living, and they are living.

BS:  Yeah. I think the point is that these people are free of fear.  And how can I be free of fear because of them? Because Iím in the same species. If I meet somebody with something, and theyíre handling it, I have the same equipment, and the same capabilities.  Whether Iím willing to make that effort is another issue. If I donít want to go through certain labor pains, then I have a right to say that Iím tired, and Iím sore and Iím ready to leave my body. I donít judge people at that point. To me, thatís the legitimate way of saying,ďIím ready to go.Ē 

RP:  Is it always a choice to leave the body?

BS:  If youíve taken charge of your life, dying is not a problem.  I mean that literally. When my father was dying, he looked me in the eye and said to me one day, ďIf you knew how much it was going to hurt, would you have asked me to do that?Ē I could look him in the eye and say, ďYes Dad, because I knew what you were going through and I felt that this could help you, and it was worth a try.Ē  But you see, if he then reaches a point where that procedure hurts too much, he can say to my mother "Rose, Iíve gotta get out of here.Ē  And she can give him the privilege to go, and the acceptance, and he leaves with her sitting next to him, and with everybody in the family who loved him sitting around him. He died with them all there. 

Now, if you decide to commit suicide, what do you leave your family with? What sense do you leave your children with? Talk to kids whose parents have committed suicide -- ask them what theyíve learned about life. And then talk to the kids of people who have taken on the adversity and gone on, and taught something. It doesnít mean they didnít die, but they were able to say, Iím tired, Iím not going to eat, Iím not going to drink, Iím going. You want to be with me, be with me. 

BS:  I am totally convinced that we are capable of leaving our bodies, and dying in a much more comfortable, controllable way, as long as we donít let our families, the medical profession, guilt, and fault get in the way. You know the idea that we shouldnít die, and weíre letting people down by doing so. The way we refer to death generally is as ďa failing.Ē  As a matter of fact, at one course I taught at a local college, there were two or three pages on how to say "somebodyís dead" without using the word "dead."  Thatís the craziness of our society.  Weíre so anti-death, but weíre not pro-living.

RP:  Youíre around people who are on the edge of life and death, a lot. What are your personal attitudes about death?

BS:  I tell people, donít do things to not die, it doesnít work. If you meditate, eat vegetables, and jog, so that you wonít die, youíll be very upset some day that you didnít sleep late, and have a steak, and an ice cream cone. I do things because I feel good living a certain way. So I exercise and I meditate, and I love -- because I like living that way. Now I know that it makes me younger than somebody else my age. But Iím not doing it to put off dying.  Iím doing it because I really enjoy living.  I look forward to dying, as an experience, someday.  I know that may sound crazy to look forward to it, because on the other hand, Iíd like to put it off by four or five hundred years, to see whatís going on. Itís exciting hanging around here. But I also wonder what is there, beyond the body.  And so, I donít have a fear of it. To me, death can mean sadness and grief, because I lose someone I love, either by their dying or by my dying.  Weíre separated.  And even though I may talk to them every day, and communicate with them, and feel them around me,  -- it ainít the same! 

And, so this whole process of aging, and accepting oneís mortality are things that we have to work on, and work with. Thatís why, after my father died, and my wifeís father died, I had to grow up.  Iím getting to be the elder in the family, and thatís a tough role for me, because Iím very child-like. Itís great having parents around, so you donít have to worry about your behavior.  I was struggling with this, and having some ups and downs over aging, and taking on this new role. When suddenly, one day in the midst of doing something I loved, I realized I'm not any age right now. I feel wonderful. I'm a child. So just keep loving and stop getting hung up on life, and death, and age. Thatís what I try to focus on: Just doing what I love to do. I donít consider it selfish to do something that interests me. It contributes something to the world, and the world will end up a better place because of it.

RP:  Your book Love, Medicine, and Miracles was a bible for me.  In 1987, I was ill for two and a half years, and every day, I did not know whether I would live or not, by the end of that day. I was in very deep fear. And I used your book and I remember reading the entire section about very exceptional patients, who were the survivors, and I was able to say yes to every single question you asked, like, do you want to live? Yes! I kept charts of my body, I drew pictures of myself, like a journal/diary, and I could chart the illness I was going through. I had a series of very intense viral infections at that time. And your book helped me so much. Iím so moved by your work.

BS:  Thank you. Itís interesting how many people wrote to me that used the metaphor you used, ďitís like a bible to me.Ē I tend to flip the bible open to read and get messages and thatís what a lot of people did with my book. Whatever page theyíd land on, they would just start reading again. As a matter of fact, I could write a book today, or give a talk of several hours on this same subject, and only use quotes from the bible. The themes are there: how to be an exceptional patient, how to survive. And we just have to keep re-learning this, in a current way, so that it makes sense to people. But the themes are there even from two thousand years ago, what life is about. And giving birth to yourself. You know, the bible has a few lines, like ďHe who seeks to save his life will lose it, he who is willing to lose his life will save it," that "the child inherits the kingdom of heaven", "be child-like", "live in the moment." And we could go on and on. 

One other theme I have, that's in Judaism, Christianity and others, is "The Path," or "The Way." I realized that, basically, what people needed to do was to find their path, their way of contributing to the world.  You donít do that by only using your intellect. How will I earn a living?  What work should I do?  What makes my parents proud? What college should I go to so I can tell the neighbors ďlook where Iíve been accepted!Ē?  Itís letting go of the reins and letting the horse find its way home. The horse has this instinctive way --  Iíve fallen off a horse, and thatís when I learned this -- the horse returns to the barn, and you get rescued. And then I began to find that theme, in myths and fairy tales and from therapists, of the horse finding its way by letting go of the reins. And so I say to people, let go of the reins. Sit on the horse, but let your intuitive side find the way. If you use logic alone, to find your path, you become pathological.  And thatís unhealthy.

RP:  I think itís a combination of intuition and discernment.

BS:  Yes, that's what adults have forgotten. This is why I learn so much from children. There's something that happens to doctors when we put walls up to stop dealing with the pain that comes with our profession, the feelings that go with the doctor's life. If you interviewed doctors on the subject of  "How Do You Feel Being a Physician?" They say ďWell I think what itís like to be a doctor is...Ē  They donít even realize they havenít used the word "feelĒ in the whole interview. You can type out a whole page, interviewing a physician, and the only word that appears is ďI thinkÖthinkÖthinkĒ  and ďI think what patients wantÖĒ 

And believe me, Iím not being critical about doctors. What changed me was exactly what Iím telling you.  I was in awful pain. Because I didnít know what to do with my "doctor disease." A lady introduced herself to me, saying that she had MS. I said, ďWell I have MD.Ē  And being a doctor is a terrible affliction. And weíre not taught how to treat our affliction. So we suffer. I painted a picture of myself, a self portrait and I show a slide of it whenever I lecture or do workshops. I painted it with a cap, a mask, and the operating gown on. You have no idea who it is; Iím all covered up! And it took me several years to understand how sick I was to paint myself, totally hidden like that.

RP:  And now through your own healing, youíre also helping with the healing of millions of people.

BS:  Yeah. Iím beginning to understand how many people Iíve helped. Iím amazed at how many people recognize me like when Iím out jogging, and start talking to me as theyíre walking by, or driving by, and they know who I am. In airports, and in other placesÖpeople start talking about very personal matters and about loved ones who have cancer, or whatever, and I realize -- or Iím beginning to -- how many people we have touched. 

We have to realize it touches us all. For physicians particularly I recommend to them to let their wounds show. Weíre all wounded.  Weíre all in some pain. If we share the pain and work together and learn from each other, then some beautiful things happen. That is what life is about. Joseph Campbell said, "Weíre here to participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world."  And thatís pretty much the way I feel about life.  Itís full of pain, difficulties, and sorrow, but there are also wonderful moments of joy. And if you choose joy, you can have far more of those moments. 

Thereís a wonderful Hassidic story I tell that helped me enormously. It's about a young man who takes off his clothes and sits under a table saying heís a turkey. Nobody can help him, until one man takes off his clothes and gets under the table with him and says heís a turkey, too. And then he tells him ďYou can wear pants, and eat at the table, and still be a turkey."  But the end of the story is that weíre all turkeys or princes or princesses. And on the prince or princess day, I have a family that doesnít let me get carried away with myself. I donít get inflated, because I have five children and a wife who keep me grounded.  And then on the turkey day, I also have their love to help me understand Iím not a turkey all the time. 

We should each carry in our pocket a note that says Iím ashes and dust  and on the other side, The universe is created for me. I think thatís the balance we have to always keep.  So that the days that Iím a turkey, and Iím dust and ashes, I forgive myself.  And the next day, if I have spent the day loving, I give myself a pat on the back. I realize that Iím human and I don't get carried away with myself, because I may not sustain this behavior for another day. 

RP:  You know, I have enough material right now to write another book for you. This is wonderful.

BS:  Thatís whatís interesting for me. People say ďOh, your bookís wonderful.Ē I am always disappointed with all of my books because I know what the editors leave out! See, I would write books of five hundred pages because I want to put more in. As you keep growing and meeting people, new themes come up. I love sharing them, and thatís part of why I keep talking. As I learn more, I like to pass that word on to make peopleís lives easier. I like to think of my books as a guide to living. I mean, if God were to give me permission we could have written a book called Bible II,just to keep people up to date. See, my fantasy was, I say this with humor to people, that God and I were working on a book that was going to be a guide to life. And each child would be born holding it. But the packaging problem was too much. But, you see, if we had a chapter on every affliction -- like you described what you went through, you could have turned to chapter twelve. And if youíre born with Cerebral Palsy, it could be chapter one. And if your parents get a divorce, or if your parent dies, it could be chapter two. And AIDS and cancer, and loss of a job, and money, and on and onÖ

RP:  All the trials of life.

BS:  Yeah. So, you could, if your child came in and said, ďLook whatís happened.Ē  Iíd say ďChapter twelve.Ē And they could read it, and realize this is how you use this pain. See, my parents, in three sentences, gave me that book.  They said ,ďIt was meant to be, God is redirecting you, something good will come of this.Ē  Thatís what I heard from them when I had troubles. What did that do for me? It took every affliction I had and changed it. I couldnít have any thing go wrong in my life.  With that statement, God was my resource, and would be directing me to the right thing, in the right place. I became ill, if I wasnít accepted at college, if the hospital I wanted to train in didnít want me, if I wanted to go out with a woman and she didnít want to go out with me, it didnít matter. From cancer to minor problems, the sense was, take a step back, see, get back in touch again with that intuitive side, let God direct you. Many times as a kid,I remember looking up at the ceiling, because I thought that God was up above, and saying, "All right, what am I supposed to do, God? You know, show me a sign." And by golly, something always showed up. 

BS:  My folks grew up in the Jewish tradition.  As the years have gone by,  I have studied religion. The other day, somebody said to me, "why do you read the bible so much?" I said, ďBecause Iím dealing with lots of people. Some are coming out of religions that have made them feel guilty, who are asking me how I know that God doesnít want them to have AIDS or cancer. I need to be able to answer those people, out of their religion, and their resources.  So that they understand I know them, and where theyíre coming from, and I donít just give a glib answer -- like "God loves you."  That may not mean anything to them. But if I can quote from the bible, if I can quote from their religion, then it means something to them.Ē  I know that some religions are handicaps to people. I lumped together all the authorities, our parents, our teachers, our religions, to understand that they can be, for many people, the greatest harm in their lives -- because of what these authorities have put into peopleís heads about how inadequate they are, not to mention the abuse that may be heaped on the individual. Itís just an incredible burden to carry. I felt, with my parents, with my religion, there was a certain comfort with God. There was nobody between me and my God. 

Today I worked on something I want to share with you. My wife Bobbie and I were in a hotel in Chicago, and our room was robbed. There was all this anger in me towards whoever did it because I felt so violated. But today, as I was out running, I thought, why are you hanging on to this? I mean, supposing that person sold the things, and I donít mean terribly expensive things, but things you had in your family for fifty years that mean something to you.   What if he sold them and bought his kids something.  At that moment I thought, well geez, if he had met me in the hallway, I would have said ďHere, Iíll buy the stuff back from you.  Go home and get your kids something. I mean, the stuff isnít that important to us."  And thatís why, I realized that the moment I forgive him, and actually hope that something good happens with the money, that he does something for himself or for somebody else, itís very different. Iím free. Then I become god-like.  And I can love him.  I donít have to like what he did. Thatís the difference. But we have to realize weíre all loveable. 

One of the ways that Iíd say to each of us to do that is with your own baby picture. Sometimes when I'm speaking to an audience, I hold a baby up in front of them and everybody goes ďAhhhhÖĒ and applauds. You donít have to ask anything, just pick up a baby, hold it up, and you get that response.  The other day I did that, got that response, then I took a high-school boy out of the front row, stood him up, and said ďWhat about him?Ē  You donít get the same reaction. But I said, ďYou are that child, youíre that Stradivarius, youíre that beautiful instrument. Why donít we feel in awe when we look at each other, of this incredible creature thatís standing in front of me thatís a human being?Ē  And so, I have one of my pictures of myself as a child, right in front of me now as I talk to you.  We ought to have them in our wallets.  We ought to have them where we work and where we live, so that we see ourselves as this beautiful kid. And then, when youíre having a ďturkey dayĒ -- or your boss is giving you hell, hold up a picture in front of your boss and say, ďBoss, before you criticize me, will you tell me if this kidís loveable?Ē  Your boss will know it's a loveable picture and then wonít be so tough on you when you say, ďHey, this is me:  Iím glad you think Iím loveable.  Now what was it you wanted to talk about?Ē   We can get in touch with that, and that includes Hitler when he was a week old, and everybody else. I mean, weíre not born this way! 

RP:  Yes, it's getting back to a place of innocence. This has been wonderful. I would love to speak with you at some point in the future.

BS:  All right. Just give a holler. You might close with this gift. The gift is, if you live your life in this way, leaving it is easy. You say ďI have lived, I have been unique, Iíve done what I need to, Iím tired, Iím going.Ē  Everybody who loves you can be there. You havenít failed anybody, havenít let anybody down. You can share some tears and some laughter, and go. Part of the theme was, how do you beat cancer, beat AIDS, how do you win over life?  And thatís really the answer: It isnít by not dying, or curing every disease, but dealing with afflictions, dealing with adversities, and loving, and then you beat it.
 
 

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