By Dr. Jim Ferguson

Ethnicity has little to do with rhythm because my grandson Noah has it.  We don’t know where he got it because my son-in-law doesn’t dance.  Perhaps it’s some recessive or ancestral gene that courses through Noah’s blood and allows him to move like no white man I’ve ever seen.

Sitting on the beach watching and hearing the ocean’s waves makes me think about the rhythms of life.  Our bodies operate with a daily (diurnal) rhythm defined by the sun.  Light rays stimulate not only our retinas, but also the pineal gland which produces melatonin that influences our sleep cycle.   When we travel across multiple time zones our bodies have trouble adjusting, producing “jet-lag” because our pineal gland’s melatonin production is out of synch.

“Where do waves come from?” I asked Mr. Google, as I sat watching and listening to the crashing Atlantic surf.  Lots of things interest me, and the same inquisitive perspective led the ancient Greeks to scientific study of the world around them.  They called this desire to know things, gnosis, the root word for knowledge.  I believe if you ever lose your inquisitiveness you will rapidly become obsolete.  I tell patients to beware of the doctor who implies that he’s always right, because it often means he’s closed his mind to further learning and will soon be dangerous, if he isn’t already.

Waves are largely created by the wind.  When the sun heats the air it rises and cooler air blows in to fill the relative void.  As the air moves across the water it causes a dragging force along the surface pulling the water upward.  The result is a rolling tsunami-like swale.  Stronger winds over greater distances produce bigger waves which ultimately encounter the beach.  The water at the bottom of a wave is slowed by the rising shore causing the wave to topple over in a crash of surf.

We live in a world of sound which we take for granted until it dissipates or is lost.  Many of my patients become increasingly isolated as they lose their hearing and can even mistakenly appear dull.  The sound of surf occurs when ocean wave energy is changed into sound waves that move through the air and are channeled into the ear canal.  At the end of the canal is the ear drum which is moved backwards and forwards by sound waves.  This movement, in turn, causes the three conductive bones of the middle ear to function like a piston and pump another drum-like apparatus on the cochlea.  It is the resulting movement of fluid waves in this hearing organ that stimulates nerve signals which race to the brain where they are interpreted as crashing surf.

A Philosopher named George Berkeley once said that a tree falling in the forest makes no sound.  What he meant was sound is interpretive.  There may be sound energy produced when a tree crashes to the forest floor, but if no one is there to hear the crash, there’s no sound.  Hmm, I’ll leave that to your reflection and return to practicality.

Sounds come intermittently and rhythmically.  They also come at different energies and frequencies.  A man’s voice is deeper because testosterone elongates his larynx producing his Adam’s apple.  The longer vocal chords produce a deeper voice.  No one can deny that teenage girls produce a piecing high frequency sound.

Sounds also come to us as intensity or loudness.  I read that crashing waves can produce sound energy measured at 70 decibels (dB) and is comparable to automobile traffic.  A faint sound like rustling leaves registers 20 dBs whereas a quiet library is 30-40 dBs.  Human conversation occurs in the 50-60 dB range.  The Seinfeld sitcom once spoofed people who talk so softly as to be misheard.  That’s not the same as the inarticulate mumble of your teenage son or when my wife says I didn’t listen; the latter is due to the Y chromosome.  Lawn mowers produce damaging 90 dB sound energy.  I learned that sporting events like Vol football registers 110 dBs and are comparable to 120 dBs of rock concerts and jet planes.  Guns, fireworks and jack hammers produce 130-140dBs and obviously require hearing protection, even though ear plugs and ear muffs only decrease sound energy about 30 dBs.

There’s something primordial about the relentless waves on the beach.  They make me think of other rhythms of life.  I don’t often think about breathing.  The non-conscious area of my brain is tasked to control respiration, heartbeat, blood pressure and even digestive processes.  In fact, these processes work best when the conscious brain leaves them alone.  I often see patients who sense “breathlessness” when their anxiety spills over into their subconscious systems.

Most of us have lain awake at night and been unable to sleep.  Who hasn’t worried about something and tried to “force” sleep onto the system designed to induce sleep, if we’d just leave it alone?   Sometimes I find it helpful to listen to my rhythmic breathing in the middle of the night.  Like ocean waves, this primordial rhythm of life seems to be a better distraction than counting sheep.

I’ll stop my beach musings and leave you with two additional rhythms to consider.  The first comes from my Master through Eugene Peterson’s translation, The Message.  Jesus said, “Come away with me and you’ll recover your life…Learn the unforced rhythms of Grace” (Matthew 11:28-30).  The second comes from The Prophet by Khalil Gibran who wrote, “And what is it to cease breathing, but to free the breath from its restless tides, that it may rise and expand and seek God unencumbered?”