by Niki Collins-Queen: Rachel Naomi Remen learned to listen from painful beginnings, eventually sharing stories in books, a counseling practice and storytelling workshops.
After graduating from medical school she became a pediatrician because she was intensely interested in how people can grow in the face of illness. Remen, 65, is a clinical professor of family and community medicine at the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine.
Remen shows through her own story living with Crohn’s disease how suffering and helplessness helped her to connect more deeply with others and live with an open heart. Her illness included being in a coma after a massive bleed in her mid teens, eight surgeries, having her large intestine surgically removed and having to wear an ileostomy, and years of intensive therapy with toxic drugs. She was told by her doctors that there was no cure and that she would be dead by age 40. Remen said, “My doctors had an excellent sense of my disease what they didn’t have was any real sense of me.”
Remen shared how in her early teens she was struck by how a little blade of grass could grow through the sidewalk in New York City. She said, “Over the years I’ve often thought of the miraculous blade of grass and wondered why none of my doctors said to me that life might work out differently than assumed. And I’ve come to understand it’s because the will to live isn’t under ‘W’ in medical textbooks the idea that it’s possible to break through formidable obstacles like an incurable illness or even sidewalk cement is something you can grasp only by observing—listening with an open heart, to people who tell the stories of their lives.”
Listening is exactly what she has done for the past 42 years.
Remen was introduced to the notion that people have an inner as well as an outer life in 1972, at the Esalen Institute, an alternative education center in Big Sur, California. She wondered, “Could this inner world have an effect on health and the ability to heal from illness?” To answer the question she turned away from her conventional path as professor of pediatrics at Stanford to begin practicing the mind/body approach. She also had a personal stake in it as she was struggling to stay alive with Crohn’s disease. Slowly she realized that something in her was growing in response to the challenge of her illness. And, over time, her intense suffering became the source of an immense compassion.
Remen left pediatrics 30 years ago and set up a practice in San Francisco. Many of the physicians sent her cancer patients that could not be helped. As she became aware of their struggles she began to wonder if people who were sick might be able to help and heal one another.
Remen cofounded the first retreat for people with cancer, the commonweal Cancer help Program in Bolinas, California. Over the years, her patients gave her the wisdom to deeply appreciate things we all take for granted: “the grace of a hot cup of coffee, the presence of a friend, the blessing of having a new cake or soap or an hour without pain,” as Remen writes in her New York Times bestseller “Kitchen Table Wisdom.” She fittingly dedicated her extraordinary book to “everyone who has never told their story.” Remen says stories “heal when they are more about who we are, not what we have done. About what we have faced to build what we have, what we have drawn upon and risked to do, what we have felt, thought, feared and discovered through the events of our lives.” And about where the love that has sustained us comes from.
Remen’s patients taught her the power of stories to heal. “In our culture, we use stories to entertain which is like using a diamond for a paper weight. What stories do is ease our loneliness, restore energy, and offer us meaning in our lives and even our suffering. They help us to live.”
She says this is not just anecdotal evidence—numerous studies have shown that ill people who find meaning in their lives experience improved immune function and better health. Also people who give voice to their suffering by telling their stories often experience a surge in personal power and connectedness to the living, breathing, loving people around them.
She says her experience taught her that at the heart of intimacy is vulnerability. When we see a matching vulnerability in another we know we will not be judged. That we are all more than we know and that wholeness is never lost, it is only forgotten.
Her inspiring stories illustrate that the purpose in life is to grow in wisdom and love. How perfection is a booby prize. What is needed is simply to be human. How we sometimes trade wholeness for approval from others. How the way we see another may easily become the way in which we see ourselves. How “broken” is only a stage in a process. How the healing of suffering is compassion not expertise. How the healing of our woundedness lies in reclaiming our capacity to heal others through touch, forgiveness and acceptance. That anger only becomes a problem when we become wedded to it. How fear of losing things we possess end up possessing us. How the worth of a lifetime is measured more in kindness than in competency. How inner silence reveals insight and truth. How prayer changes us not the world. How freedom comes not from controlling events but from a willingness to move with the events. How the less we are attached to life the more alive we can become. And how embracing life is more about adventure than having your own way.
Remen said, ” 9/11 reminds me that we have the technology, the know-how to build 110-story buildings and to cure innumerable diseases, but that it isn’t the type of wisdom that’s going to heal us or make us safe. To heal us and help our future, what seems needed is the reweaving of the web of human connection that has been broken between us…All stories illustrate what every mother knows—that life itself is a miracle, that everyone’s is someone’s child, and that every human being matters.