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Marcus Aurelius helped me survive grief and rebuild my life
It's a common misconception that to be a Stoic is to be in possession of a stiff upper lip.
'When I was a child, when I was an adolescent, books saved me from despair: that convinced me that culture was the highest of values.'
From The Woman Destroyed (1967) by Simone de Beauvoir
It's a common misconception that to be a Stoic is to be in possession of a stiff upper lip, to be free from the tumultuous waves of one's emotions. But what this interpretation of Stoicism gets wrong is that our emotions, even the most painful ones, need not be our enemies if we can learn to think of them as our guides. This might seem obviously false, or like the words of a person who has never encountered real suffering. But it was during one of the worst crises of my life that I found my way to Stoicism and, through Stoicism, to something that's as close to acceptance as I think it's possible to find on this plane of existence.
In September of 2013, my husband suddenly developed the strangest of illnesses. Describing him as sick seems almost farcical as there weren't fevers or tumours or anything really that we could point to and say: 'This – this is what is wrong.' But there was weakness and fatigue. And above all, there was confusion. It took a couple of months, but eventually he was diagnosed with myasthenia gravis: a rare autoimmune disease that we were told normally afflicts women under 40 and men over 60, neither of which he was, and that, all things considered, was relatively minor, and that we could likely expect to go spontaneously into remission over the next five to 10 years. However, the prognosis turned out to be as off the mark as his chances of developing the disease in the first place. Two days before Thanksgiving, his body began to fail him. The man who had once carried me over a threshold no longer had the strength in his neck to lift his own head off a pillow. I called 911 over his objections and he was brought, protesting, to the hospital where he was ultimately admitted to the intensive-care unit. From there, he continued to decline.
I walked in on Thanksgiving morning as the nurses were moving him to change the sheets on his bed. What I witnessed will stay with me for the rest of my life: the man I love, the father of the one- and five-year-olds I had left at home, went into total respiratory failure. His entire body turned as purple as an eggplant, and I stood by while an emergency intubation was performed to save his life. For just under a month, he persisted with tubes and machines performing all of his bodily functions. He had few moments of lucidity, most of them in fear, but none more fearful than when I signed the consent form over his objections to have a tracheotomy placed because, I was told, it had ceased to be safe for him to remain intubated the way he was.
That tracheotomy, however, would prove to be what killed him. I would be what proved to kill him. Because, after the crisis was over, after he started to walk again, and after he came home from rehab to have what would prove to be one last Christmas with his children, he asphyxiated in his sleep – a mucus plug, caused by the damage done to his trachea – killed him just as we had begun to plan for a second chance at life.
I got through the wake and the funeral on an unholy combination of Xanax, vodka and sheer force of will. The first free moment I had afterwards, though, I headed to what has long been my happy place: the Mabel Smith Douglass Library on the Rutgers New Brunswick campus. I had gotten it into my head that I could find the comfort I desperately needed, if only I could read the Phaedo and convince myself of the immortality of the soul. I can't say the attempt was successful. And I'm still sorry for the poor librarian who had to make sense of my desperate tears at not finding Plato where he was supposed to be. But when she got me to where the books had been moved, it was Marcus Aurelius' Meditations that I took off the shelf, and that has made all the difference since.
The book's pages contain such simple wisdom that it can seem almost silly to say that I needed to see it written down, but Aurelius' injunction to 'fight to be the person philosophy tried to make you' was the battle cry I needed. I don't think it's an overstatement to say that what I found within the pages of the Meditations rescued me from the despair that was threatening to devour me. Suddenly widowed, with two small children I felt utterly unequipped to vouchsafe through the journey toward adulthood, there was footing to be found in Aurelius' instruction 'not to be overwhelmed by what you imagine, but just do what you can and should'. I still had no idea how I would handle my children's graduations, or puberty, or afford braces, let alone college, but it was a reminder that I didn't need to solve those problems now.
Aurelius reminded me that where I was wasn't just where I was but when – and that there was no advantage to be found in unsticking myself from time. I'd be lying if I said I learned to stop panicking immediately or instantly. But I learned to repeat to myself the instruction to 'never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.' And I learned to take stock of the tools I had and how they could be used to solve the problems of the present rather than catastrophising the unknowns of the future.
But the passage that made the biggest difference – the passage I return to year after year, as deathiversaries or new milestones threaten to drown me in waves of grief – is a reminder that the narrative we construct around what happens to us is, ultimately, up to us. No matter how terrible what happened was, it is still our choice whether to understand our story as one of crippling defeat or a miraculous victory against the odds – even if all we do is get back up and learn to stand again.
I won't and can't say that the death of my husband at just 33 years old is not a misfortune. Nor would I or could I say that I don't think it's an injustice for my two children to live almost the entirety of their lives without their father. But we have endured and prevailed, and that, I've learned to see, is a great good fortune I can celebrate.
Losing a loved one is, as Aurelius says, something that could happen to anyone. But not everyone remains unharmed by it. We mourn, we are not unaware of what we've lost. But what we've gained is the perspective that 'true good fortune is what you make for yourself'. We hold tighter to each other, to the truth that life is fleeting, and that each moment of joy that finds its way to us is a gift to be treasured. And, perhaps most importantly, we learn that, while we don't get to decide when we get shipwrecked, we do get to decide what we rebuild out of the debris.
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A new study finds that dogs fed fresh human-grade food don't need to eat—or do their business—as much.
- Most dogs eat a diet that's primarily kibble.
- When fed a fresh-food diet, however, they don't need to consume as much.
- Dogs on fresh-food diets have healthier gut biomes.
Four diets were tested<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTU5ODI1MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1NjY0NjIxMn0._w0k-qFOC86AqmtPHJBK_i-9F5oVyVYsYtUrdvfUxWQ/img.jpg?width=980" id="1b1e4" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="87937436a81c700a8ab3b1d763354843" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1440" data-height="960" />
Credit: AntonioDiaz/Adobe Stock<p>The researchers tested refrigerated and fresh human-grade foods against kibble, the food most dogs live on. The <a href="https://frontierpets.com.au/blogs/news/how-kibble-or-dry-dog-food-is-made" target="_blank">ingredients</a> of kibble are mashed into a dough and then extruded, forced through a die of some kind into the desired shape — think a <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Food_extrusion" target="_blank">pasta maker</a>. The resulting pellets are sprayed with additional flavor and color.</p><p>For four weeks, researchers fed 12 beagles one of four diets:</p><ol><li>a extruded diet — Blue Buffalo Chicken and Brown Rice Recipe</li><li>a fresh refrigerated diet — Freshpet Roasted Meals Tender Chicken Recipe</li><li>a fresh diet — JustFoodforDogs Beef & Russet Potato Recipe</li><li>another fresh diet — JustFoodforDogs Chicken & White Rice Recipe.</li></ol><p>The two fresh diets contained minimally processed beef, chicken, broccoli, rice, carrots, and various food chunks in a canine casserole of sorts. </p><p>(One can't help but think how hard it would be to get finicky cats to test new diets. As if.)</p><p>Senior author <a href="https://ansc.illinois.edu/directory/ksswanso" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Kelly S. Swanson</a> of U of I's Department of Animal Sciences and the Division of Nutritional Sciences, was a bit surprised at how much better dogs did on people food than even refrigerated dog chow. "Based on past research we've conducted I'm not surprised with the results when feeding human-grade compared to an extruded dry diet," he <a href="https://aces.illinois.edu/news/feed-fido-fresh-human-grade-dog-food-scoop-less-poop" target="_blank">says</a>, adding, "However, I did not expect to see how well the human-grade fresh food performed, even compared to a fresh commercial processed brand."</p>
Tracking the effect of each diet<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTU5ODI1OC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY3NjY1NTgyOX0.AdyMb8OEcjCD6iWYnXjToDmcnjfTSn-0-dfG96SIpUA/img.jpg?width=980" id="da892" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="880d952420679aeccd1eaf32b5339810" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1440" data-height="960" />
Credit: Patryk Kosmider/Adobe Stock<p>The researchers tracked the dogs' weights and analyzed the microbiota in their fecal matter.</p><p>It turned out that the dogs on kibble had to eat more to maintain their body weight. This resulted in their producing 1.5 to 2.9 times the amount of poop produced by dogs on the fresh diets.</p><p>Says Swanson, "This is consistent with a 2019 National Institute of Health study in humans that found people eating a fresh whole food diet consumed on average 500 less calories per day, and reported being more satisfied, than people eating a more processed diet."</p><p>Maybe even more interesting was the effect of fresh food on the gut biome. Though there remains much we don't yet know about microbiota, it was nonetheless the case that the microbial communities found in fresh-food poo was different.</p><p>"Because a healthy gut means a healthy mutt," says Swanson, "fecal microbial and metabolite profiles are important readouts of diet assessment. As we have shown in <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jas/article/92/9/3781/4702209#110855647" target="_blank">previous studies</a>, the fecal microbial communities of healthy dogs fed fresh diets were different than those fed kibble. These unique microbial profiles were likely due to differences in diet processing, ingredient source, and the concentration and type of dietary fibers, proteins, and fats that are known to influence what is digested by the dog and what reaches the colon for fermentation."</p>
How did kibble take over canine diets?<p>Historically, dogs ate scraps left over by humans. It has only been <a href="https://www.thefarmersdog.com/digest/the-history-of-commercial-pet-food-a-great-american-marketing-story/" target="_blank">since 1870</a>, with the arrival of the luxe Spratt's Meat Fibrine Dog Cakes—made from "the dried unsalted gelatinous parts of Prairie Beef", mmm—that commercial dog food began to take hold. Dog bone-shaped biscuits first appeared in 1907. Ken-L Ration dates from 1922. Kibble was first extruded in 1956. Pet food had become a great way to turn <a href="https://www.dogfoodadvisor.com/choosing-dog-food/animal-by-products/" target="_blank">human-food waste</a> into profit.</p><p>Commercial dog food became the norm for most household canines only after a massive marketing campaign led by a group of dog-food industry lobbyists called the Pet Food Institute in 1964. Over time, for most households, dog food was what dogs ate — what else? Human food? These days more than half of U.S. dogs are <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/03/magazine/who-made-that-dog-biscuit.html" target="_blank">overweight or obese</a>, and certainly their diet is a factor.<span></span></p><p>We're not so special among animals after all. If something's healthy for us to eat—we're <em>not</em> looking at you, chocolate—maybe we should remember to share with our canine compatriots. Not from the table, though.</p>
New study suggests the placebo effect can be as powerful as microdosing LSD.
- New research from Imperial College London investigated the psychological effects of microdosing LSD in 191 volunteers.
- While microdosers experienced beneficial mental health effects, the placebo group performed statistically similar to those who took LSD.
- Researchers believe the expectation of a trip could produce some of the same sensations as actually ingesting psychedelics.
Psychedelics: The scientific renaissance of mind-altering drugs<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="92360c805fe66c11de38a75b0967f417"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/5T0LmbWROKY?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>For the study published in eLife, the team recruited 191 citizen cosmonauts to microdose either LSD or a placebo over the course of several weeks and note the psychological effects. Volunteers were already microdosing LSD, so there was no true control. Each volunteer was given instructions on creating their own low-dose gel capsules, some containing LSD, others not. Then they mixed the capsules in envelopes so they didn't know if they were taking the real thing or not.</p><p>The trial design was ingenious: each capsule featured a QR code that was scanned after the addition of ingredients but before they were placed in the envelope so that researchers knew what they were ingesting.</p><p>The problem: volunteers sourced their own LSD. Lack of quality control could have had a profound effect on the results. </p><p>The results: LSD microdosers reported feeling more mindful, satisfied with life, and better overall; they also noticed a reduction in feelings of paranoia. </p><p>The catch: the control group felt the same thing, with no statistical difference between the groups. </p><p>Lead author Balázs Szigeti comments on the findings: "This suggests that the improvements may not be due to the pharmacological action of the drug but can instead be explained by the placebo effect." </p>
Credit: Alexander / Adobe Stock<p>Psychedelics are notoriously difficult to control for given the intensity of the experience. Yet there is precedent for the above findings. A <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00213-020-05464-5" target="_blank">2019 study</a> found that 61 percent of volunteers that took a placebo instead of psilocybin felt some psychedelic effects, with a few volunteers experiencing full-on trips.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Several stated that they saw the paintings on the walls 'move' or 'reshape' themselves, others felt 'heavy. . . as if gravity [had] a stronger hold', and one had a 'come down' before another 'wave' hit her."</p><p>The Imperial team believes the expectation of a trip might have been enough to produce similar results. Senior author David Erritzoe is excited for future studies on the topic, believing they tapped into a new wave of citizen science that could push forward our knowledge of psychedelic substances.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Accounting for the placebo effect is important when assessing trends such as the use of cannabidiol oils, fad diets or supplements where social pressure or users' expectations can lead to a strong placebo response. Self-blinding citizen science initiatives could be used as an inexpensive, initial screening tool before launching expensive clinical studies."</p><p>As investments into the psychedelics market explode, with one company <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-03-03/thiel-backed-magic-mushroom-firm-atai-hits-2-billion-valuation" target="_blank">reaching a $2 billion valuation</a>, a recurring irony appears in the long arc of psychedelics and research: the power of our minds might be enough to feel greater life satisfaction and a deeper sense of mindfulness. If that's possible with a placebo, we have to question why the rush to create more pharmacology is necessary. </p><p>This is, mind you, a separate conversation over the role of psychedelics and rituals for group bonding. The function of group cohesion around consciousness-altering substances will continue to play an important role in many communities. </p><p>Of course, we should continue to explore the efficacy of psychedelics on anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, PTSD, and addiction. <a href="https://bigthink.com/surprising-science/antidepressant-effects" target="_self">Pharmacological dependence</a> is a stain on the psychiatry industry. Whether or not psychedelics can be prescribed for daily use remains to be seen, but we know a moneyed interest is expecting a return on investment—the above company, ATAI Life Sciences, raised $157 million in its Series D round. </p><p>When it comes to wellbeing, some things money just can't buy. How we navigate the tricky terrain of mainstreaming psychedelics remains to be seen. </p><p>--</p><p><em>Stay in touch with Derek on <a href="http://www.twitter.com/derekberes" target="_blank">Twitter</a> and <a href="https://www.facebook.com/DerekBeresdotcom" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Facebook</a>. His most recent book is</em> "<em><a href="https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B08KRVMP2M?pf_rd_r=MDJW43337675SZ0X00FH&pf_rd_p=edaba0ee-c2fe-4124-9f5d-b31d6b1bfbee" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy</a>."</em></p>
What makes some people more likely to shiver than others?
Some people just aren't bothered by the cold, no matter how low the temperature dips. And the reason for this may be in a person's genes.