Faith, Doubt, and Brain Surgery

Here’s Where My Head’s At Most of the Time

I’m trying to be hopeful, but the world seems so scary
I’m trying to be happy, but everything seems so hard
If you are too, let’s talk

I’m trying to have faith, but life makes me doubt
I’m trying to love God and hear his voice, but life’s noise seems to drown him out
If you can relate, let’s talk

I’m trying to try, to keep on, to strive
To be better, get stronger, be wiser
If you feel me, let’s talk

I want to know for sure, but my knowledge seems so shaky
I want to be certain, but the things I think I know keep changing
If you’re shaking your head yes, let’s talk

I’m trying to become healthier, feel better, and be happier, but life seems really hard sometimes. If you understand this and you’re trying too, let’s talk.

I’m trying to get right about who I am, trying to get real about what I want, I’m trying to get clear on how to get there. If you are too, let’s talk.

I’m trying to change my mind so I can have a changed life. If you are too, let’s talk.

Are you ready to keep trying? Are you ready to at least start the conversation?

Are you ready to start today?

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Hey my friend, I’m Dr. Lee Warren. I live in Wyoming in the USA with my incredible wife, Lisa Warren. I’m a neurosurgeon and an author.

I’m here to help you harness neuroscience, the power of your brain; faith, the power of your spirit; and commonsense to help you lead a healthier, better, happier life.

Listen, you can’t change your life until you change your mind, and I’m here to help you learn the art of self brain surgery to get that done, so let’s go!

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I don’t like superficial conversations, so if you’re going to spend this time with me today, then know that we’re going deep.

Because you know what?

Life is hard, and sometimes the hardest thing to deal with is the voice in our own head. I’m tired of being my own worst enemy, and I bet you are too.

The bad news is, life’s difficulties are not entirely in our control.

The good news is, how we react to them is.

But our brains get in our way.

Part of the reason why is rooted in neuroscience, and I can help you understand that stuff so it stops hurting you and starts helping instead.

Part of the reason why is rooted in spirituality, and I can help you see that more clearly too, so you can tap into the power that’s available to you, to change your mind and change your life.

We’re rebooting the podcast to help us reboot our lives, and this is episode number one of the brand new Dr. Lee Warren podcast.

Over time, we’ll talk science, faith, doubt, hope, joy, pain, and all the places in between. We’ll talk books, music, and all kinds of things that make life worth living and make it possible to see our way through the hard parts.

Today, we’re talking about faith, doubt, and the things we think we know. We’re going to learn the art of self brain surgery to get our heads on straight, and we’re going to learn how to start today.

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Before we get started today, I want to send a shout out to my man Adam in Denver.

Lisa and I met Adam at Elway’s Restaurant in Denver, and he’s an awesome server and super cool guy. We ate there with friends one night and had an amazing meal, and Adam made it a lot more fun. Then Lisa and I went back a few nights later and Adam served us again. He remembered our names, and we had a great conversation.

It’s so cool to meet people who are at the top of their game in any industry, and Adam, you’re a consummate professional and a credit to your profession. If you’re listening in the Denver area, or if you’re traveling through, you should hit up Elway’s at the Ritz Carlton and ask for Adam.

Tell him Lisa and Dr. Lee Warren sent you.

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I have a new book coming out

It’s the story of how people hold up when life doesn’t turn out the way they thought it would. It starts out about brain tumors and trauma and tragedy, but it’s really about hope and faith in the midst of doubt and pain. It’s about how to find your feet when the world crumbles, how to find the light when things seem so dark, and how to help other people find it too.

It’s called I’ve Seen the End of You: A Neurosurgeon’s Look at Faith, Doubt, and the Things We Think We Know. It’s being published by Waterbrook/Penguin Random House, and it’s coming in January of 2020.

This podcast has always been my way of helping you start today to find a way through, to become healthier, to feel better, and to be happier even when life is hard. But I’ve been offline for a while, busy writing my book and with our move from Alabama to Wyoming, building a house, and the normal busyness of life with Lisa, our kids and grandkids.

But it’s time to start. So now it’s time to dig in, to go deeper, to get our heads on straight and find joy and purpose and hope in every moment.

If you’ve been reading my letters or blog or books, or if you’ve listened to my podcasts, you probably know already that we lost a son in 2013. Mitch was a great kid, taken from us too early and too tragically for it to make any sense (then or now).

I didn’t know for a while if I could go on. It shook our family’s faith- my faith- and made us all doubt God’s love and whether he was even real for a while.

But something happened to me in the aftermath of losing Mitch.

And this time was the genesis of my understanding that life isn’t all black and white. I’d seen it before, of course, but the previous difficulties I’d had all, at their root, had some element of human decision making involved that I could wrap my head around.

Being at war was emotionally harmful to me, but I understood that I was seeing and having to do hard things because people had decided to fight each other, not to mention the fact that I had signed up to go there; it wasn’t random nor forced on me.

Going through a divorce was incredibly difficult too, but in the same way, that relationship ending was the consequence of two people and years of decisions and choices that led us there.

But when Mitch died, it turned everything upside down. I couldn’t find a box to put it in, a context in which it made any sense. There was no clear, logical path from some decision or event leading to it, and no way to understand it.

A random, tragic, unknowable and unfathomable event took a member of our family away, and I was unanchored. Adrift in a sea of doubt and pain, in the “difficult dark” that E.B. White wrote about, I didn’t know if I could survive or breathe or smile or feel anything but hurt again.

But I was supposed to be a person of faith, to believe God has a plan, that He’s in control, that He works everything out for my good. Those platitudes sound true, but like many things that sound true, on the ground when it mattered, they didn’t feel true to me at all.

And then, while I was personally lost in the labyrinth of grief, with Lisa at my side in her own pain, I somehow knew that the option of collapsing under it and giving up was not available to me.

I realized that my family needed me to lead them through it, to show them that they could take the next step because I did. When you’re the leader, the one who people look to when they don’t know what to do, you’ve got to step up. Lisa and I didn’t think we had the strength, weren’t sure if we believed the things we’d been taught, and had then taught our kids to believe, and weren’t sure we even knew how to carry on, but we knew we had to.

I’ve always communicated best through writing, because although I can solve some of other people’s problems in the operating room, I realized a long time ago that I can only solve mine by writing about them.

So I started blogging and podcasting in early 2014, as a way to communicate to my family and others that the next step was possible. That’s all I really had at first- just that next step- but it seemed to matter. Then I started a weekly letter, and now it’s read every Sunday by people all over the world (by the way, you can get my letter for free at www.wleewarrenmd.com/newsletter).

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This Week’s Things that Help

Before we go any further, I want to introduce you to a new thing we’ll be doing here on the podcast. Lisa and I will give you one thing every episode that has helped us in our lives, our faith, our healing from losing a child, or in our marriage. It might be a book, some music, an article or blog or someone else’s podcast. But every episode, one of us is going to give you something helpful, okay?

For today, there’s a book I want you to read.

No matter what your situation in life is, I know one thing for sure: you’ve been through, are going through, or will be going through something hard at some point. And when you do, it can really shake you up if what’s happening is outside of the things you thought you knew to be true in your life.

And one of the best books I’ve read about what to do when life lets you down hard is Craig Groeschel’s Hope in the Dark: Believing God is Good When Life is Not. He uses the book of Habakkuk in the Old Testament to help us know what to do when things get hard, and it’s outstanding. I wish I’d had it when Mitch died.

If you’re hurting, read it. If you’re trying to find hope and you’re tired of the Christian cliches’ that often make it worse, read this book. If you love someone who’s feeling hopeless, read it.

Okay?

All right, let’s get back to the episode.

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Running up the beach

Hey, did you ever see the movie Saving Private Ryan?

The opening scene is soldiers storming the beach on D-Day. The ones who survived getting out of their boats and wading through the surf under heavy fire and made it to the beach all stopped the first time they reached any type of cover. But the movie shows how those guys were pinned down, and it was only a matter of time before the German’s shells would kill them all. The Captain realizes they’ve got to press forward or they’re all done for.

Well, after we lost Mitch, I realized that, like the soldiers on the beach at Normandy on D-Day, I couldn’t just sit down under the weight of pain and grief or it would surely kill me; and I couldn’t just run forward by myself, but I also couldn’t retreat. Behind was only pain and loss, and there was no life there. So I had to turn and wave others (family, readers, other struggling people) forward into the fight, because the only way out was through.

The only way to find the light when life seemed so dark was to be willing to go through the fight.

And that’s true for you too, my friend:

Whatever you’re going through or will go through in your life, the only way out is through. When things are hard, you have to lead the charge.

Maybe you’re listening to this and thinking of your situation, and saying to yourself, “Yes. My people need me to lead them through this, but I don’t know how.” Well, if that’s the case, then we’ll get there together, okay? I can share with you some of the things we’ve found that seem to work.

And if you’re hearing this, and you’re not in a place to lead others forward, if it seems so dark and scary where you are that you need a guide to help you move forward, then keep listening. Because sometimes in the darkness all you need is someone a little farther down the path to shine a little light for you to walk towards. We’ll do that too.

In future episodes of this podcast:
We will laugh
We will cry
We’ll be inspired
We’ll be honest
We’ll hear other people’s stories and be encouraged, be thankful, be educated and sharpened and bettered
We will grow
We will walk through it together.
We will start today.

It’s taken me years to figure it all out, to tie it together, to learn enough about story that I could learn to tell mine, to get out of my own way so I can help you get out of yours.

When I talk about story, I want you to realize that the books and movies you love the best all have the same formula. Donald Miller put it in a way that makes a lot of sense, although he was only channeling Joseph Campbell when he said that every great story follows this same formula:

A hero has a problem, then meets a guide who shows him the way and calls him to action. The result of that action is either success or failure- victory or defeat- but the hero grows, overcomes some great obstacle, and is forever changed by the result of the action.

So get this, and you’ll be well on your way to being able to handle anything life throws at you: when you’re having trouble, you don’t need a hero to come save you. YOU’RE THE HERO of your own story. You just need a guide- some who’s been through it and can help you get ready to face your situation. You don’t need Luke Skywalker to come save the day- because you’re Luke Skywalker. You need Obi Wan to guide you, train you, because Obi Wan’s been through it before.

So here we are, and if you’re facing some great challenge in your life and you feel stuck or unsure what to do next, I can tell you that it is possible for you to make it through. How do I know? Because I’m still alive, Lisa’s still alive. Our marriage and family are intact despite what all we’ve been through. So you can do it too.

In my case, I got tired of being my own worst enemy, and I realized that my mind and my emotions weren’t always reliable when I allowed difficult circumstances to create emotions that hindered me instead of helping me.

And I came to understand the one great truth that I’m here to share with you:

You can’t change your life until you change your mind.

It became crystal clear to me: most people react to the events of their lives, and they believe every negative thought that pops into their heads.

But even as a grieving parent, even as a divorced person, even as a traumatized war surgeon, I knew enough about neuroscience to know that we’re wired to focus on negative experiences, and that our minds will make us believe those negatives are inevitable. But the flip side is, the same chemical pathways in our brains that create negative neurotransmitters automatically can be trained- changed- to react more positively.

And this is in every way, self-brain surgery. You can literally learn how to change how your brain works, how you feel, and how your life plays out, by changing how you think.

And I also knew, as a person of faith (even my shaky, hurting, doubtful faith), that the Bible has been saying all along that the secret to a happy and joyful life is not the avoidance of pain and hard times. Rather, it’s learning to focus on something other than circumstance, something lasting, something life can’t take away from you: and that something is hope.

From a neuroscience standpoint,
Serotonin and dopamine speak to depression and pleasure.

So, if you’re feeling depressed and flat,
You need more serotonin and dopamine
In your brain

And there’s two ways to get them:
Drugs that alter your brain chemistry
Or changing the things in your life
That alter the availability of those needed neurotransmitters

The best way is do-it-yourself brain surgery:
Serotonin and dopamine reliably follow
Self-directed thought processes
And activity

So, as cliche as it sounds when he says it,
Tony Robbins is right:
“Emotion follows motion”

Exercise produces increases in endorphins, and all the helpful neurotransmitters.

Challenging automatic negative thoughts and replacing them with healthier, more positive ones does too.

That’s why Paul gave us the list of, “Think on these things” in Philippians 4:8.

He said,  “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”

Why? Because your brain responds to the nature of your thoughts. When you think better, you feel better. The world seems more hopeful. Things improve.

So, emotion and the chemical milieu of our brains can create perceived realities that can be overcome
With action, strategy, thought hygiene, and spiritual truth telling to ourselves

In my neurosurgery practice, I used to see a brain scan of someone with a malignant tumor, and in my mind and heart I would say, “I’ve seen the end of you.” I thought I knew what was going to happen, when they would need surgery, when the tumor would come back, when they would die.

I had faith that God could heal, and I knew that people who have hope always do better than those who do not, but I felt dishonest when I tried to encourage people with certain, almost always fatal diagnoses like glioblastoma. I wanted them to pray, to fight, to try, but in my mind I already knew what would happen.

But over the course of a few years in practice, I began to see something remarkable: I didn’t always know everything. Some people surprise you. Some people make it when they shouldn’t. Some people give up and die when they actually had a chance. Some people survive, but they’re wrecked emotionally and spiritually from the experience. And some people die, but they come to find peace and faith through the process.

So I saw that it’s not the outcome that should determine our mindset or our happiness. It’s the journey, the approach, the way we handle circumstance by preparing our minds and hearts for it before it happens that matters.

And as I was learning all these things, we lost a son.

Mitch died, and I was thrust into the furnace of suffering that Isaiah talked about in the bible in Isaiah 48:10. And I had to experience firsthand what I’d been feeling for years: I’d seen the end of me too if I couldn’t find a way to land on hope in the midst of the worst thing that can happen to a parent.

That’s what my new book’s about: how to live while you’re dying, how to hope when you’re suffering, how to help others see the light when you’re in the darkness yourself.

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Wind the Clock

In 1973, the writer E.B. White wrote a letter to a fan of his, who had written to White to say he felt hopeless.

Here’s White’s letter, and I think we all need to hear it:

“As long as there is one upright man, as long as there is one compassionate woman, the contagion may spread and the scene is not desolate. Hope is the thing that is left to us, in a bad time. I shall get up Sunday morning and wind the clock, as a contribution to order and steadfastness.

Sailors have an expression about the weather: they say, the weather is a great bluffer. I guess the same is true of our human society—things can look dark, then a break shows in the clouds, and all is changed, sometimes rather suddenly. It is quite obvious that the human race has made a queer mess of life on this planet. But as a people we probably harbor seeds of goodness that have lain for a long time waiting to sprout when the conditions are right.

Man’s curiosity, his relentlessness, his inventiveness, his ingenuity have led him into deep trouble. We can only hope that these same traits will enable him to claw his way out.

Hang on to your hat. Hang on to your hope. And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day.

Sincerely, E. B. White”

Wind the clock.

Don’t give up hope.

For us, it was a decision that, even when we couldn’t feel it, we were going to believe that there was still light, still hope, still faith out there somewhere. That’s what winding the clock is: you might not feel like you can make it another day, but you better wind the clock anyway, because when you wake up tomorrow and find that you did, in fact, make it through the night, you’re going to need that clock.

There’s a bible verse, Psalm 126:5-6 (VOICE), that speaks to this idea:

5 Those who walk the fields to sow, casting their seed in tears,
will one day tread those same long rows, amazed by what’s appeared.
6 Those who weep as they walk
and plant with sighs
Will return singing with joy,
when they bring home the harvest.

This is what happened after Mitch died, when we realized that we had to go back to work. We cried, we fought back sobs while we did our jobs, and months later we were amazed that our practice was still thriving, that our bills had been paid and we’d always made payroll for our employees and that somehow God had gotten us through those awful months when we’d “cast our seed in tears.”

And so the podcast is here for you, my friend, for us together to explore all these questions- how do we live better even if we have a terminal illness?, how do we find joy amidst hard times?, how do we hold onto hope in the darkest times?, how do we help other people when they’re hurting?, how do we manage our minds so they help us and don’t hold us back? To learn how to change our minds so we can become healthier, feel better, and be happier no matter what life brings us. So we can keep running up the beach into the fight so life’s battles can’t pin us down and drive us into the sea of doubt and pain and loss.

Jesus said he came to give us an abundant, joyful life even though life is hard.

I’m here to tell you it’s possible.

If you want to learn how, keep listening.

If you want to hear other people’s stories of how they’re making it through, keep coming back.

I’m Dr. Lee Warren, and I’m changing my mind so I can change my life.

When I started this podcast in 2014, I called it You Start Today. That phrase was something Lisa and I realized we had to do to survive losing Mitch: we came to one moment when we had to make a choice to start; to move, to breathe, to hope, to work out, to hang in there. We knew if we didn’t, if we allowed grief to win, it would make us drown, to be stuck, to fall apart. So we got to one day and we just knew it was time, that we had to start moving again. We said, “We have to start today.”

That’s the back story. It’s called “The Dr. Lee Warren Podcast” now, but I needed you to know why I’m always saying to start today. I sign off every week’s letter with it, and we live our lives with it.

So, that’s what I have for you, friend: If you’re stuck, you need to start moving again. And hope is the first dose of the drug that will help you get it done.

How about it?

Are you ready to start today?

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Thanks for listening.

The Dr. Lee Warren podcast is brought to you by I’ve Seen the End of You: A Neurosurgeon’s Look at Faith, Doubt, and the Things We Think We Know, available from Waterbrook/Penguin Random House for pre-order now everywhere books are sold. Don’t forget to support your local booksellers!

You can subscribe to this show so you automatically get every episode. Go to my website wleewarrenmd.com for more information about my letter, this show, my books, and more.

Remember: You can’t change your life until you change your mind. Start today.

I’m Dr. Lee Warren, and I’ll talk to you next week. God bless, and have a great day.

 

Theme music for The Doctor Lee Warren Podcast is Blue Highway by Podington Bear via freemusicarchive.org

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