David Levy, M.D.
Combining Intellect & Faith A Journey of Hope and Healing
This isn’t brain surgery!” An often repeated saying, this phrase refers to making something way more complicated than it needs to be. For neurosurgeon David Levy, M.D., however, it really is brain surgery. On a regular basis, the lives of his patients literally depend on the decisions he must make. Levy is a clinical professor at world-renowned UCSD Medical Center in San Diego, CA, where he also maintains his practice. In addition, he is a popular speaker and the author of Grey Matter, his autobiographical account of the power of prayer. Risen met with him at his home, where he shared the wisdom gleaned from years of professional and personal study.
Interviewed exclusively for risen magazine in san diego, california
RM: When did you first realize you wanted to be a doctor?
DL: I grew up in a tiny farm community in Wisconsin and moved with my family to Georgia when I was a junior in high school. After graduation, I began working at a gas station as an auto mechanic. I was sort of lost, without any great goals or aspirations, and certainly no desire to become a physician. The son of the gas station manager [where Levy worked] was taking the MCAT test for admission to medical school and that was the first time I’d heard of anything like that. One day I was under my car, looking at the transmission which had been making a funny noise, and the thought came to me that if I could fix cars, I could fix people. It was sort of my epiphany. I didn’t think at the time that it was God speaking to me, but I believe now that it was. The next chance I had, I went to [see] the student pre-medical advisor at the local college. A little over two years later, I had completed my undergraduate study and was attending Emory Medical School in Atlanta.
RM: That was an awfully quick shift from mechanic to med student! How well did you acclimate to medical school?
DL: Medical school was everything I wanted and more. I thrived on the challenge, the intensity, and the intellectual stimulation of my classmates. I was drawn to neurosurgery because it seemed to be the most complex. There was much about the field that was still unknown. I went into the most difficult specialty within neurosurgery, which is neuro-vascular or cerebral vascular surgery (open-skull procedures); stroke, aneurysms, things like that, involving the blood vessels of the brain. I also do endo-vascular surgery, which goes through the artery in the leg and into the brain. I found that I was technically gifted and able to do the most technical surgeries.
RM: In order to advance in such a difficult field, I’m assuming you are highly competitive. Has your competitiveness always served you well?
DL: Even though being competitive did help me get ahead, I’m not so sure it was healthy. The most relevant factor in being competitive is your motivation. Sometimes competitiveness comes from trying to prove you’re okay because you don’t know you’re loved by your heavenly Father. That is often related to not having experienced love from your earthly father. If you can’t get love, then the next best thing is attention. You think that your value is dependent upon what people think about you so you try to please them, win their favor, or study hard to be at the top of the class. That was true in my case. When I was younger, I played competitive sports. It wasn’t necessarily about fun. It was about trying to prove that I was okay, and a lot of stress was involved.
Most of us think we understand God but our brains have been wired to our earthly parents. It takes time and energy to get to know God as a perfect parent.
There’s also something I call “the curse of the gifted,” which was a factor for me and also for many people who are intelligent, beautiful, wealthy, or gifted in ways that the public esteems. Although gifted people seem to be very confident, it is often an illusion because their identity is wrapped up in being successful in the area of their gifting. It’s all about performance, and that is subject to change. There’s always another test, another competition, another chance to prove yourself… or a chance to fail. Many of us who have only known performance at the top level don’t feel worthy of love, don’t feel valuable, unless we are performing at a high level.
Another problem with being gifted is that we are more prone to rely on ourselves instead of God when we come up against challenges or problems. In the arena of brain aneurysm surgery, after you’ve done a lot of cases and made a name for yourself, every case can seem like an opportunity to fail. It’s a very lonely, very stressful place to end up because even if you do it perfectly, you’re only doing what was expected of you. Maybe a difficult case goes well and you take the pictures to a national meeting and show them off to your colleagues, but you’ve got another test coming the next day. To keep that going year after year is a heavy burden. It’s like making yourself into a false idol and all false idols will eventually let you down. I wanted to be a machine at one point. That was my “solution” to prop up the false idol of self. I thought life would be so much easier for me if I could just be a machine without emotions, without the ups and downs. In reality that would be a curse. Emotions are a good thing that God has given us and we need to pay attention to them.
RM: How did you come to faith in Jesus?
DL: Becoming a follower of Jesus was for me a process. I had some faith when I was as young as seven. While in med school, my faith was sort of underground. The world tells medical students, “Who needs God? You’ve got it all! You can write your own ticket!” I didn’t want to think that I needed God if my classmates didn’t. I was very susceptible to wanting to fit in. I wanted God to bless me, but I was basically trying to do life on my own.
My mother was raised Protestant and my father, who was raised Jewish, came to Christ when he was in his twenties. I grew up going to church and also celebrating Jewish holidays. But my parents’ faith experience was mostly grounded in church rules rather than a relationship with God. The love of the Father wasn’t part of their understanding of God. Consequently there was a lot of yelling and erratic punishment in our household. They did the best they could. Our initial ideas about God are formed from experiences with our parents. Most of us think we understand God but our brains have been wired to our earthly parents. It takes time and energy to get to know God as a perfect parent.
There were a couple of events that happened while I was living in Pittsburg, prior to moving to San Diego, that turned out to be pivotal for my faith. I had a very difficult surgery that lasted eleven hours and later the patient died. Also I had been dating a fashion model that ended up going out with another doctor who wasn’t nearly as talented as I was and I couldn’t figure that out. [Smiling] The truth was, I had been treating her poorly because I thought it was all about me. When that relationship ended, I was angry. I blamed my father for not teaching me about relationships. He had repeatedly told me, “You need to be the best.” There was an inference that being the best would bring happiness. He conveyed that things are worth more than people, that success is worth more than relationships. My becoming an egotistical neurosurgeon really fit with that. So I was expecting to be happy.
I have been praying with my patients before surgeries for eight or nine years now and it has
become a favorite part of my practice.
The concept of giving in a relationship was very foreign to me, and my lack of awareness was also fed by the media. Movies, for example, are all about “Who can make me happy?” So I thought that was relationships. I knew something was missing but I didn’t know what it was. I called my mother and got angry, complaining to her about my dad. I had written him some letters and he never wrote me back. I was telling my mother how disappointed I was. She told me I needed to forgive my father because I too, had hurt people and I also needed to be forgiven. There I was, 30 years old, and that was not what I wanted to hear, not why I had called her. But she was giving me some powerful truth and in a while I realized it. That night I said, “ Okay, God, I forgive my father.” That was probably my first step of faith and something began to happen in my heart. It was a major change.
RM: It’s interesting that you said, “Okay, God…” You had awareness that it was something between you and God.
DL: Yes, I knew it was a spiritual thing. It wasn’t anything I would ever be able to leverage or capitalize on. I released him [my father] from having to make up to me what I missed in my childhood.
Growing up, I had been pretty sure my father didn’t like me very much. I didn’t like him very much either and I didn’t want to be around him. After I forgave him, I started to think about the fifth commandment, “Honor your father and mother, so that it may go well with you.” I looked at my life and realized it wasn’t really going well with me. I needed to figure out how to receive this promise from God and one of the ways was to call my father. It was spiritual growth for me, doing something I didn’t necessarily want to do. I began calling him every week. We would talk about whatever he wanted and not what I wanted. I had been very driven up to that point, and I had a real peace afterwards.
Another significant experience for me happened shortly after I moved to San Diego. I was jogging on the beach, looking for girls to date, particularly looking at the pro volleyball players who train at Mission Beach, and I believed I heard a voice in my spirit asking me, “What are you doing?”
“Looking for girls, like always!” I thought.
“How long have you been doing that?” I did a mental calculation and came up with 18 years.
“And how much time have you spent in this pursuit?” I figured thousands of hours.
The next question came, “What do you have to show for all the time you’ve spent?” I was scrambling to come up with some redeeming value, but I couldn’t think of anything. Nothing!
“If you stop, I’ll bring someone to you.”
I thought, “I’ll die! This is what gets me up in the morning! The dream that I may find her.”
But I thought about it some more and decided to make a deal: I wouldn’t speak to any girl unless she spoke to me first. I felt pretty comfortable with that deal because having girls talk to me had never been a problem.
RM: Up until then, you’d had quite a number of relationships?
DL: Yes, but very superficial ones, essentially diversions to keep me from feeling pain. You cannot love someone if you don’t love yourself. You are trying to get beautiful people of value to give you value because you lack a solid identity. It’s all about pretending and twisted worship.
So I stopped dating. Three years went by and no one would talk to me! But during this time, I started to hunger for the Word, which had not been the case previously. Previously the things of God had seemed pretty dull compared to a new date or presenting at a national meeting. I thought that Jesus Christ was a nice guy, but not really anyone I wanted to follow. As I read the Bible, I began to realize that He was very powerful, but not in the ways our culture typically esteems. Jesus showed tremendous restraint, never seeking glory for Himself. Here I was, a neurosurgeon, and I couldn’t wait to glorify myself.
Over time, I began to enjoy spending time with God and to choose the things of God. So part of me did die, but it needed to die. That period without dating contributed a lot to my spiritual development.
RM: In what ways has your spiritual growth impacted you personally and professionally?
DL: The big thing was to be able to receive God’s love for me and therefore be able to genuinely love others without regard to what’s in it for me. It took many years before I really began to be more loving to others. It has been a journey and I’m still on it. I also choose to focus on what I do have and not on what I don’t.
For many of my patients, there is something not going well in their lives. Because of what I personally have learned, I suggest, “Let’s look at what is going well and give thanks for that.” I may be able to transform their day, maybe even the rest of their life. I can fix their brain aneurysm and hopefully I make their life longer, but if I don’t take an interest in them, I can’t make their life any better.
Making lives better is directly related to helping them heal their relationships. Our relationships are with God, others and ourselves. Part of healing is to examine those three areas. I want to bring this to the attention of my patients because their relational health affects their overall health. Eighty to ninety percent of all disease has at least some aspect of it that is relationally based. Anger, bitterness, forgiveness, etc., all affect our health, certainly making things worse if not in fact being the cause of health problems. It’s always worth addressing.
I take a 24-hour Sabbath every week to tune up my relationships. I shut down emails, turn off the electronic stuff and try to think about the relational aspects of life. I take care of myself, call people, and spend time with God by journaling, worshiping, singing, expressing pain and joy. Sabbaths have made me wiser.
RM: You said earlier that forgiving your father brought a major change for the better in your life. How important is it to forgive the people who have hurt us?
DL: Vitally important but often very complex. Even understanding and naming the hurt is humbling and difficult. Keeping the hurt at the level of anger feels good, because it seems powerful and energizing. Some people just move on and pretend it doesn’t hurt. Yet being able to verbalize it is the first step in healing. I suggest writing it. I think it comes out better. To God, not necessarily to another person, because it is His wisdom that is going to help you, including showing you the heart of the other person and what issues they are bound up with. This happened recently to me.
Someone was treating me unkindly, not valuing my participation, and I was hurt by it. There were other factors like fatigue from having been on call that had contributed to the hurt. I was taking it personally but I knew enough to go to God and ask Him for the truth. I realized a couple things that helped me let go of the hurt. First, that I had been processing it through the lens of my own childhood experiences of performance-based love. Second, that the person tends to treat everyone in similar fashion, it wasn’t just me. It helps to realize that wounded people wound others. They don’t mean to, they just do. Given the “right” circumstances—and by that I mean childhood experiences, parents, hormones, the whole ball of wax—any of us would probably be capable of committing the same offense.
I think it is also good training to go to God with heartfelt questions. For example, “God, I don’t seem to have much value to this person. Is that okay with you? Do you understand how I feel?” I’ll wait for answers and almost always it is, “I get it.” Jesus knows all about rejection, betrayal, people sidling up to him, trying to take advantage of Him, misjudging Him. I feel like God is not blaming me for my feelings. Rather, He is validating them. He understands. Part of the ability to have a relationship is attunement. Until I can feel understood, I’m not going to be able to feel secure or affirmed. So much of what we’re looking for, even in our earthly relationships, is validation.
Sometimes I will ask my patients who are struggling with forgiveness, “What is it that you lost? What if the person who hurt you cannot give back what was lost? Is it okay if God gives it to you another way?” Just identify what you want and ask God for it, as if you were a much-loved child. Once I process things with God I can also process them with other people. As we hear ourselves saying the truth, it does reinforce the truth for us.
RM: So you’re recommending going to God first?
DL: Yes. It’s harder to do because we can’t see Him but the more you do it, the more neurologically stable it becomes. God has a personality and to have a relationship with Him you need to spend time together. You should expect from the outset that it’s going to take some extra effort.
RM: How did the idea of praying with your patients occur to you? Was it an easy idea to implement?
DL: I began going back to church probably five years after I forgave my father and moved to San Diego. Even though I had been reading the Bible, I was actually afraid of going to church, afraid of what people would think. I had an identity as a Jewish doctor among Jewish professional colleagues and friends and I saw that if I changed that identity, there would be a cost. When I realized that the real reason I wasn’t attending church was fear of losing my social and intellectual stature, I asked myself, “If I believe the Bible is true, why am I afraid that others will find out?” I got the courage to go to church, but even then I selected a church whose pastor was a Jewish believer.
Even after I started going to church, I didn’t see how my faith and my profession would work together. One day I found myself in the dentist’s chair, feeling a little tense, and he put his hand on my shoulder and just said a short prayer. I remember I felt a peace come over me. The injection still hurt, but not to the same level. Anxiety makes everything worse, especially pain. On my way home I heard an inner voice saying I should pray for my patients. I thought at the time, “That’s a special gift for dentists since their work isn’t so high risk as mine. I’ve got really serious cases!” Also I didn’t want to be misunderstood or have them think I was trying to push religion on them or that I didn’t know what I was doing.
Nevertheless I made another deal with God that I would try to pray for the next patient. It was scary for me and my knees were shaking but ultimately I did it. My patient’s countenance immediately became very peaceful and she actually started crying. She felt the same peace come over her that I had experienced in the dentist’s chair. Her two daughters were with her and they were both crying too.
I have been praying with my patients before surgeries for eight or nine years now and it has become a favorite part of my practice. When you’re scared about something, the most important thing to remember is that God is with you. If I can help people do that, I’m doing them a tremendous favor. My goal is just to bless them and if they want to know more about what I believe, they’re welcome to ask me. Some want prayer and some don’t.
RM: You indicated earlier that much in the field of neurosurgery was still unknown when you entered the profession. Please share some bit of new information that might be of interest to our readers.
DL: We now know that the brain is like a garden. What we plant and water, in other words what we give our attention to, will grow and take up more space in the brain. Probably the most high-level decision making process we can engage in is to choose where to focus our attention every moment of the day. Not only will our choices determine how we spend our time, they take up real estate in the brain. The choices you make literally cause new connections to form in the brain. For example, the portion of a blind person’s brain that is usually devoted to processing visual information is instead taken up by hearing. People who are blind can listen to a book on tape at three times the rate that you or I could because they’re able to process the information so much faster. The brain neurons that sighted people use are instead available to the blind person for hearing. This is the power of what we focus on.
Furthermore, your brain has the ability to make a given belief “true” for you by selectively pulling in information. Usually what we want to believe has to do with minimizing pain and maximizing pleasure, in that order. Emotional pain, or what I would call social pain, is probably more significant than physical pain. Physical wounds do heal but psychological wounds many times do not, especially those acquired in childhood. As an example, the Pharisees in Jesus’ time felt very threatened by all the attention He received and it caused them social pain. Subconsciously they chose what they wanted to believe and their brains made it “true” for them by pulling in information that cast Jesus as a troublemaker. The miracles He did seemed to bother them somewhat but they attributed His works to wizardry or to Beelzebub [Satan] instead. They explained away the evidence. I encountered something similar in medical school. That environment is a hotbed of self-actualization and no one wants a spiritual crutch. You’re supposed to be able to get yourself out of any situation. I would call it socially painful to admit that you need a savior in those circumstances. I did not want to believe in Jesus.
Depending upon the level of anticipated pain, it often takes something supernatural to believe. So I will ask people, “Is God or Jesus someone you want to believe in?” There are a lot of reasons they might not and I don’t try to argue someone into faith; they will put up every possible smoke screen. Very rarely will someone actually admit that they don’t want to believe because that would be admitting a bias. We pride ourselves in being non-biased, but everyone has a bias.
RM: Does your question of “Do you want to believe?” start to open the door to realizing the bias?
DL: Yes, it does. I enjoy asking those kinds of questions. Not pushing anyone to agree with me, but just gently probing. It’s only when we bump up against reality— reality being what happens when your current world-view is not working— that we’re open to a new paradigm.
RM: What has science learned about the effects of stress?
DL: Stress is just a nice word for fear and it has a very serious effect on the brain. It stimulates the amygdala, which is the fear center, actually causing these little structures to get larger because the neurons get used more. You’re also secreting cortisol and epinephrine—stress hormones—into your system, which hijack your thought process and make it very difficult to think of anything other than getting out of the stressful situation. This causes serious damage to relationships because you just don’t care. Even the closest people to you become either an obstacle in the way of getting what you want, or a resource you can use to get what you want. Suddenly your ability to see another person as a human being worthy of love, deserving of permission to make mistakes, someone worth being in relationship with… all that is seriously diminished.
Our society doesn’t deal well with fear and stress. Without realizing it, a lot of people live in a state of chronic stress and it manifests itself as back pain, neck pain, and different physical ailments. Then they start on the medication cycle: pain medication, sleeping medication, anti-depressants, anti-anxiety. There is a tendency to address everything on a physical level without considering whether there might be a spiritual side to the problem.
The Bible has a lot to say about fear. It tells us not to fear, but rather to hold tight to the promises of God. In other words, to have faith. The truth is that, given how an individual’s brain might be wired, he may not have a choice except to fear. It goes back to the concept I talked about earlier, namely that our thoughts take up real estate in our brains. If an individual is stressed, the amygdala, the fear center, gets larger. The brain needs to be re-wired by choosing to think about things related to faith, hope and love instead of things related to stress, fear and pain. It’s difficult to do and takes time and effort, but it is possible.
To be able to speak aloud things that are true, or even that you want to be true, enables you to focus your thoughts in a way that can be transformative./h1>
I think there are many things that contribute to our stress-filled lives, including distorted media messages, shame-based parenting, and the effects of our digital age. Research shows that our relational skills are dropping as a result of spending more time texting, watching videos, and generally engaging with electronic stuff instead of people. This is especially relevant for women who have historically been the glue to hold relationships together. The trend does not bode well for the nature of stable bonding.
RM: Recently you gave the commencement address to graduates of Loma Linda University’s School of Dentistry and you led them through a series of affirmative declarations. How have these been a tool to help yourself and others to improve your lives?
DL: I’m very interested in things that work. Affirmations and declarations are part of that, and they are in agreement with the word of God. To be able to speak aloud things that are true, or even that you want to be true, enables you to focus your thoughts in a way that can be transformative. The Bible is full of positive declarations. “I will never leave you or forsake you” is one of my favorites. So a declaration that comes from that might be “God will never leave me or forget me.” Declarations from the Bible also help us to see ourselves as God does, as someone of immense value, someone who is loveable and loved unconditionally.
Many of us are so accustomed to being criticized that we do it to ourselves, as if the stern and harsh words will make us snap out of it and do better next time. Seemingly it puts us in control and that sense of power feels good. However studies show that negative self-talk is actually the worst thing you can do because you’re also on the receiving end of the criticism. The result is that it tears you down instead of building you up.
In one-on-one situations, I’ve also seen how an affirming statement spoken to another person can help them to see themselves differently. I love to see people wake up to the fact of who they are. People tend to look to someone in a position of status to validate them. I’m convinced that one reason God gives gifts of power or beauty or wealth is so we can bless others with our words. When people of status take time to tell someone they’re intelligent or have a beautiful heart or whatever it may be, it has power.
RM: Do people who are not in a position of status nevertheless have power to validate and encourage others?
DL: No matter who you are, your words have more power than you realize. Most of us simply don’t get affirmation from anyone. Not from our neighbor or our family members or our friends. We don’t hear it from others and we don’t say it to ourselves and thus we don’t believe it. Instead we are more likely to hear from the media that there is something wrong with us and if we buy a certain product it will fix us. The brain is very involved with comparisons; we do it automatically. That’s how we come to an understanding of who we are, in accordance with some social norm, and we don’t generally come out looking as good as we want to. It’s very hard to stop the comparisons, but declarations will help.
RM: You’re obviously a man who enjoys a challenge. What are you pursuing these days?
DL: I want to be a wise man, wise in relationships and in spiritual matters too; to be able to see the world we live in but also to see the spiritual world which according to scripture is actually larger and more powerful, and I think more interesting.
RM: Do you have any parting advice or encouragement for our readers?
DL: Relationships are really what life is about. It’s important to be correctable, able to admit when you’re wrong. Give grace to others and that will give you permission to give grace to yourself too. That has been a big deal for me, a brain surgeon who is expected to be right all the time. Learn to speak with kindness, gentleness, compassion and encouragement, including when you talk to yourself. Because that’s how Jesus would do it.