By Dr. Jim Ferguson

A friend and fellow wordsmith introduced me to a new word last week. Apparently in Sweden it has become the rage to pick up garbage along the roadside as you jog. This is called “plogging,” even though Mr. Webster has yet to recognize this new term. Perhaps the Swedes found a story I wrote some years ago in The Focus describing how Becky and I often pick up trash along the roadside as we walk for exercise. I guess you could say we have been “plalking” for years! That essay – and many others – appears in my book called, “Well… What Did the Doctor Say?” (Shameless plugging, don’t you agree?)

Several years ago I organized a cruise of the Aegean Sea and the Adriatic coast with the lovely Becky and some dear friends. This was a “bucket list” journey for me because I wanted to experience exotic Croatia and Montenegro, but more importantly to sail the sea of the ancient Greeks and to stand on the Acropolis one last time. And the icing on the proverbial cake was to see the magnificent ceiling frescos of the Sistine Chapel now restored to the original colors. I had first viewed Michelangelo’s masterpiece in the early seventies, covered with centuries of soot and dirt. Now, I carry in my “inward eye” (memory) the colorful palate of the master which only intensifies his Biblical visions.

As I listened to my minister’s recent sermon, focusing on the Creation of Adam, that monumental centerpiece of Renaissance painting came flooding back into my memory. I won’t digress further into nuances of art appreciation, but encourage you to Google the paintings of the Sistine Chapel and visualize God reaching across the void to touch the languid, almost lifeless, hand of Adam. There is a marvelous creation story in Genesis 2:7 which reads, “the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” Was the dust the atoms in the crust of the earth? Was the man less than fully alive before God emparted the pneuma (the breath of life) to the man and gave him an essence, a soul?

I’m reading a book called “Speaking the Truth in Love” by Koch and Haugk, whose eponymous title comes from the famous passage in Ephesians 4:15. The book serves as the reference text for the Stephen’s Ministry, where laity learn to be good listeners in order to help people struggling with illness, abuse, depression, loss or even substance abuse.

I am not a mental health expert (but I once stayed in a Holiday Inn Express). However, I discovered early in my internal medicine practice how often medical illness coexisted with emotion issues. Sometimes the latter presented with physical symptoms requiring me to exclude organic disease and then treat, within my ability, the causal mental health disorder. An example is fatigue caused by depression rather than an underactive thyroid.

What has intrigued me about the book and the Stephen’s Ministry is how important it is to have someone listen non-judgmentally when times are tough. I’m afraid that medical doctors, other than perhaps psychiatrists, and time constraints are abrogating their listening role to so-called physician extenders (nurse practitioners and physician assistants). Patients often tell me how much they like other doctor’s extenders because they spend more time with them. In my concierge practice I am less bound by time, and so my folks deal directly and only with me rather than someone else operating in my name.

Most have heard of the terms passive, aggressive, passive-aggressive and assertive behavioral types. The Stephen’s ministry teaches listeners how to recognize these behavioral problem-solving techniques and to promote Christian assertiveness as a better way toward interpersonal interaction.

We’ve all known people who are so passive they get pushed around by more aggressive types. The authors even observe that passivity can promote passivity or aggressive behavior in others. An example of problematic passivity is allowing an injustice to go unchallenged. Aggressive shouting, insults or blaming others is also counterproductive. And the passive-aggressive technique of ignoring others or resorting to sneak attacks is also a maladaptive behavior. Alternatively, the more appropriate assertiveness stems from self-worth, but not to the detriment of others.

As I read the book and thought about assertiveness, the word empathy kept coming to mind. Empathy is the projection of oneself into the perspective of another. The idiom of walking a mile in another’s shoes comes to mind. Sympathy is more a feeling than an action. I may be sympathetic of someone else’s flu because I’ve experienced the same miserable malady, but I’m not projecting myself into another’s plight.

So, why do we care about the feelings or the condition of others? Why should I extend myself across the void to another person? I believe the reason and motive force is love. And where does this loving perspective come from? Is this the way humans are constructed through our DNA? Well, who wrote the code? Is love born of necessity and evolutionary pressures, a survival skill for community? There must have been a first “Adam,” a first human. Well, how did that being become fully human and capable of community?

Materialism is a philosophy where all matter and motion exist without any external agency. Determinism argues that there is a purpose and a planner (Intelligent Designer), though often mysterious and inscrutable.

At one time there was no material universe. Even physicists and atheists like Stephen Hawkings and Neil deGrasse Tyson acknowledge this. The word void best describes the absence of anything. Aristotle argued that something cannot come from nothing. Perhaps Aristotle was imagining a primal and creative force, a will to produce the matter, space and time which encompasses what we call the universe.

God reached across the void (Genesis 1:2) and as a result I am here to think and to write and to say “Thank you” for life, awareness and for love.