Sympathetic Resonance

For ah! we know not what each other says,
These things and I; in sound I speak—
Their sound is but their stir, they speak by silences.

Francis Thompson, The Hound of Heaven

Any vibrating object—a wooden reed, a string, a cymbal, a bell—produces sound waves. These waves are capable of causing a second object in close proximity to sound as well, even though the second object is not set in motion directly by physical means. This phenomenon is called sympathetic resonance.

Sympathetic resonance can be demonstrated in the laboratory with a set of tuning forks placed next to one another. It can also be observed in a musical instrument such as the piano, where one pulsating string will induce another string to sound, usually an octave apart. The second string is said to resonate sympathetically with the first. The simultaneous sounds of these two strings blend together, filling the air with a harmonic chord. That, in part, is how music is made.

Vibrating objects with musical tonality are not the only things that resonate. Words are capable of doing the same thing, albeit in a different way. A particular piece of writing might resonate with the deepest recesses of our inner being. In reading the written text, we connect with the author’s thoughts in a way that we understand intuitively and experience emotionally.

Sometimes this experiential sharing takes place in conversation. In the 1960s the common vernacular described such harmonious connections as “good vibes.” The Beach Boys popularized this concept in their hit song “Good Vibrations.” Contrariwise, if someone repulsed you, you said that they sent out “bad vibes.”

Researchers have found that music can be therapeutic. Through a piece of well tempered music, an empathetic musician can connect with a terminally ill patient and help to quiet inherent fears in those final days and hours. In these instances, you might say that the soul of the patient resonates sympathetically with that of the music. Perhaps one day we might be able to ameliorate certain illnesses through sympathetic resonance.

Recently, I experienced sympathetic resonance while listening to the performance of a violin soloist.

Members of the audience shifted in their seats as a young girl rose and walked to her station next to the piano. She was dressed in a pink turtleneck top, light brown corduroy trousers and insignia orange tennis shoes. The sleeves of her sweater stretched to the middle of her palms, exposing only lithe delicate fingers, the hands of a child.

She tucked her instrument under her chin and drew the bow across a single string. The pianist struck a single note, and the girl adjusted the thumb screw slightly until the two notes blended into one.

I watched the pianist’s face: a slight shift of the eyes, a barely perceptible nod of the head. As the girl began to play, the first notes swelled in the stillness: rich tonal sounds reverberating through the belly of the wooden instrument.

The melody was a familiar one: Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring. The girl played it through twice, pouring all of the emotion into the notes, blending both with the accompanying chords of the piano.

Throughout the performance the girl kept her eyes focused on the music stand before her as she deftly drew the bow across the strings, her delicate fingers dancing on the narrow neck of the violin.

Suddenly the end came: the final measure drew to a close; the last note lingered in the still air, then faded into oblivion.

The girl’s mother nodded; I could see that she was pleased. Quietly, the girl took her seat.

All rose in silence, listening to the lingering grace.

Unemployment Assistance

My pulse kicked into overdrive when I read the subject line of a recent e-mail from a friend: “Bad News.”

I took a deep breath as I opened the message and read the lines of text. My friend had lost his job. The previous day, with no prior warning, he had been let go from a position he had occupied for the past seven years. The company was undergoing reorganization. His boss had decided to wipe the slate clean and start fresh—new younger workers with less experience could be hired for considerably less money. Needless to say, my friend was left in the lurch. He’s married, the father of a 2-year-old toddler and has a mortgage on his home.

What’s so odd about that scenario, you might ask. In these difficult economic times many folks are in the same predicament. Ordinarily, I would have to agree with you. Except in this instance, my friend is a family physician. He’s bilingual and has spent most of his career working with the poor and the indigent. He’s competent, conscientious and cares deeply about the patients he serves. So why was he let go? Although he’s asked, his questions have fallen on deaf administrative ears. Perhaps he wasn’t productive enough to pump out yet another patient with a myriad of medical problems every 12 minutes, who knows?

My friend subsequently drew up a list of the medical needs of his most complicated patients and forwarded it to the administrator of the clinic where he worked—the same administrator who had in fact let him go. My friend wanted his replacement to have the background information to be able to deliver good care to his former patients.

In the interim period, as luck would have it, my friend happened to reestablish contact with an acquaintance from years ago—a wandering sort of sage, who was practically homeless at the time. Out of the blue this fellow called up my friend to chat. When he learned that my friend had recently lost his job, this fellow offered to send him a bit of money to tide him over.

My friend was astounded at the offer. It wasn’t as if he needed the money; he has always been prudent with his finances and will do just fine in the long run. No, it was the fact that this homeless fellow had made a sincere gesture to help, even though he had little to spare for himself.

My friend wrote that he felt like the Jimmy Stewart character in “It’s A Wonderful Life”—George Bailey returns home after his Walpurgisnacht wanderings through the streets of Pottersville to be greeted by family and friends, who dig deep into their pockets to raise the funds to support him in his time of need.

I am confident that my friend will soon have another job. People with his skills, talent and experience don’t stay unemployed for long. But even the unemployed man who has the poorest of true friends is rich beyond measure.

“Hard Facts and Fiction” published in “Pulse”

“Despite my thirty years experience as a physician assistant in general pediatric practice, I hadn’t made much headway with Daniel. I’d pose a question, and his mother would jump in to answer it for him. He continued to slouch on the exam table and stare at the floor.

“Perhaps my years of clinical practice were beginning to take their toll. Or perhaps this quiet boy somehow reminded me of my own struggles with depression during a turbulent adolescence….”

Readers can now access my latest piece Hard Facts and Fiction, newly published in Pulse, voices from the heart of medicine.

Pulse is an online magazine that uses stories and poems from patients and health care professionals to talk honestly about giving and receiving medical care.

Gandhi’s Glasses

Mahatma Gandhi’s steel-framed spectacles, his pair of sandals, bowl, plate and pocket watch recently brought in $1.8 million at auction.  Vijay Mallya, the Indian liquor and airline magnate, announced that he had purchased the items with plans to return them to India.  How ironic that these few items owned by a man who had repudiated materialism commanded such an exorbitant price!


A century and a half ago, Henry Thoreau described a similar set of transactions in his “Economy” chapter of Walden:


“Not long since I was present at the auction of a deacon’s effects…As usual, a great proportion was trumpery which had begun to accumulate in his father’s day. Among the rest was a dried tapeworm. And now, after lying half a century in his garret and other dust holes, these things were not burned; instead of a bonfire, or purifying destruction of them, there was an auction, or increasing of them. The neighbors eagerly collected to view them, bought them all, and carefully transported them to their garrets and dust holes, to lie there till their estates are settled, when they will start again.”


Similar examples of the pursuit of venerated objects abound in history.  Crusaders sought the Holy Grail.  Thousands still journey to Fatima to seek the holy water with healing properties.  Now that she is gone, Mother Teresa’s medical notebook, her white enamel bowl, her crucifix, rosary and brown leather sandals are contemplated with reverence.  Even Thoreau’s flute and rustic furniture that he used during his two-year sojourn at Walden Pond remain on public display in the Concord Museum.


Why in our quest of the spiritual do we continually put stock in material things? It’s almost as if we believed that spirituality could be bought instead of sought.


Another ironic twist here is that it was Thoreau’s Essay on Civil Disobedience that spurred Gandhi to pursue a non-violent philosophy of political resistance—Satyagraha—throughout his life as an ascetic in India.  And in 1999 Gandhi’s grandson in turn participated in the public reading of Thoreau’s essay on the steps of First Church in Concord, Massachusetts, on the 150th anniversary of its publication at the annual gathering of the Thoreau Society.


Even though they’re no longer for sale to the highest bidder, perhaps we can still glimpse the world through Gandhi’s eyeglasses—by studying his writings and reading his life story.


NPR ran a recent story about concerns US Intelligence officials have regarding transitions in political power in three countries run by heads of state whose health is failing. In each of these three countries no mechanism exists for the peaceful transfer of power. Indeed, there is every suggestion that some sort of political power struggle might ensue when these current leaders pass on.

Moreover, each of these countries carries a special risk for the US—Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest exporter of oil; North Korea has nuclear weapons; Cuba is strategically placed within 90 miles of US borders. Small wonder then that the US Intelligence community is monitoring these situations closely.

Potential power vacuums are always worrisome. Transitions are not necessarily peaceful or pleasant. Outcomes are often unpredictable and sometimes lead to unexpected consequences.

One of my coworkers recently lost her mother to cancer at 52 years of age. At the time of diagnosis, the primary lung cancer had spread to both liver and brain. Doctors offered palliative therapy to get her through the holidays. Despite all of the good care this woman received, she passed away—at home with family members by her side.

Several months ago this woman had taken the time to write letters to each of her three grown children and her grandchildren. These letters were distributed by her husband at the time of her death.

When the news came of her passing that Sunday morning, instead of driving directly to her mother’s home, my coworker took a roundabout route. It was a cold grey winter morning; the roads were choked with overnight snow and ice. As she made her way alone in the car, my coworker found herself talking to her mother. Momentarily, the sun broke through the massive clouds overhead. The light reflected off the snow so intensely that she had to lower the visor to shield her eyes.

Later that day my coworker opened her mother’s letter. Quietly she laid it in her lap after reading the final sentences. “I love you, Baby Girl,” her mother had written. “After I’m gone, look for the sun. Whenever it streams down onto your face, that’s me sending my love to you.”

Transitions are seldom easy. Outcomes are unpredictable; they carry elements of risk. Sometimes they can lead to unexpected consequences—some of which, even in the most difficult moments, can be exceedingly reassuring.

Days of promise in borrowed time

Driving along back country roads under faultless blue skies on my way to work, I noticed the bright orange pails suspended from the trunks of bare trees.  Two pails were pinned to each trunk in what looked to be a stand of perhaps twelve to fifteen maples.  The weatherman was calling for a high of 55; soon the sap would be running.


Further along the road I passed by a farm.  A harrow and plow stood next the barn in the morning sun, silently waiting for the tractor’s hitch.  Overhead, a huge red-tailed hawk circled, scouting the brown expanse of fallow fields below for signs of movement. I cracked the car window to sample the air’s sharp sweetness.


Our neighbor’s rhododendron leaves have relaxed their tight grip.  The last of the icy snow on the road has melted, leaving behind a dusting of cinnamon sand along the shoulder.


This afternoon I took a walk down by the river.  Gingerly I shuffled over patches of hard packed snow scattered along the path.  Pickerel Cove lay locked in ice, but the river flowed freely, swollen from melting snows.  A pair of Canada geese paddled leisurely along the opposite bank, occasionally dipping their black bills into the dark water.


I stopped on the bank to study the minute sandy canyons, each one a miniature riverbed carved out by the run-off from the melting ice.  From bare branches high overhead the notes of a solitary song bird sounded in the clear cold air.


As I neared our house, I paused to watch a black wooly caterpillar stretching its way across the road, another early sign of spring.