Excerpts from Kitchen Table Wisdom by Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D.
Some people spend enormous amounts of time considering the impression that their words and behaviors create, checking how their performance will affect their audience, playing always for approval. Others make a tiny gap between their thoughts and their words which allows them to say only that which they feel will please others. A great deal of energy goes into this process of fixing and editing ourselves. We may have even come to admire in ourselves what is admired, expect what is expected, and value what is valued by others. We have changed ourselves into someone that the people who matter to us can love. Sometimes we no longer know what is true for us, in which direction our own integrity lies.
Sometimes perfectionists have had a parent who is a perfectionist, someone who awarded approval on the basis of performance and achievement. Children can learn early that they are loved for what they do and not simply for who they are. To a perfectionist parent, what you do never seems as good as what you might do if you tried just a little harder. The life of such children can become a constant striving to earn love. Of course love is never earned. It is a grace we give one another. Anything we need to earn is only approval.
All love in unconditional. Anything else is just approval.
Being brave does not mean being unafraid. It often means being afraid and doing it anyway.
Protecting ourselves from loss rather than grieving and healing our losses is one of the major causes of burnout. We burn out not because we don’t care but because we don’t grieve. We burn out because we have allowed our hearts to become so filled with loss that we have no room left to care.
Kissing the boo-boo doesn’t help the pain. It doesn’t help the pain, it helps the loneliness.
Life is known only by those who have found a way to be comfortable with change and the unknown. Given the nature of life, there may be no security, but only adventure.
Our expectations may actually blind us.
Actually, we are all more than we know. Wholeness is never lost, it is only forgotten. Integrity rarely means that we need to add something to ourselves: it is more an undoing than a doing, a freeing ourselves from beliefs we have about who we are and ways we have been persuaded to “fix” ourselves to know who we genuinely are.
Suffering is intimately connected to wholeness. We might learn it not by divine revelation but simply through a careful and patient observation of the nature of the world. Suffering shapes the life force, sometimes into anger, sometimes into blame and self-pity. Eventually it may show us the freedom of loving and serving life.
Death is mystery, it might be the end to life and then again it might not.
I suspect that the most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen. Just listen. Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention. And especially if it’s given from the heart.
A loving silence often has far more power to heal and to connect than the most well intentioned words.
Perhaps we are no longer a kind people. More and more, we seem to have become numb to the suffering of others and ashamed of our own suffering. Yet suffering is one of the universal conditions of being alive. We all suffer. We have become terribly vulnerable, not because we suffer but because we have separated ourselves from each other.
Before this meeting I suggest they find an ordinary stone, a piece of the earth, big enough to fit in the palm of their hand, and bring it to the meeting with them. The ritual begins by having everyone sit in a circle. In any order they wish to speak, each person tells the story of a time when they too faced a crisis. The person who is speaking holds the stone the patient has brought. When they finish telling their story of survival, they take a moment to reflect on the personal quality that they feel helped them come through that difficult time. “What brought me through was determination. What brought me through was faith.” When they have named the quality of their strength, they speak directly to the person preparing for surgery or treatment, saying, “I put determination into this stone for you,” or, “I put faith into this stone for you.”
Survival may depend on seeking and finding meaning.
Perhaps winning in life requires that we love the game of life unconditionally. Life provides all the pieces and it is whole.
I have let go of my preferences and am living with an intense awareness of the miracle of the moment. When you are walking on thin ice, you might as well dance.
In relationship to life, just as in human relationships, attachment closes down options, commitment opens them up. Attachment is a reflex, an automatic response which often may not reflect our deepest good. Commitment is a conscious choice, to align ourselves with our most genuine values and our sense of purpose. Survival in a setting of life-threatening illness may involve a willingness to let go of everything but life itself.
See, I have set before you this day the choice; good and evil, the blessing and the curse, life and death. Therefore, choose Life! -Deuteronomy
Have plants in your office. Every patient is there because in some way they live in a psychological environment that makes growth difficult. Emotionally speaking, they are trying to find a way to live in a room without windows. A windowless office is, in a sense, the perfect meeting place. Her patients find her tending a plant that is hostile to growth. Week by week they watch it growing. They begin to hope. Perhaps there is a way to tend life, a way to grow despite difficulties and limitations. Perhaps she can help them.
Whatever the expertise we have acquired, the greatest gift we bring to anyone who is suffering is our wholeness. Listening is the oldest and perhaps the most powerful tool of healing. It is often through the quality of our listening and not the wisdom of our words that we are able to effect the most profound changes in the people around us.
Believe in the person you are going to become. “Human being” is more a verb than a noun. Each of us is unfinished, a work in progress. Perhaps it would be most accurate to add the word “yet” to all our assessments of ourselves and each other. Jon has not learned compassion...yet. I have not developed courage...yet. It changes everything. If life is process, all judgments are provisional. We can’t judge something until it is finished. No one has won or lost until the race is over. But when is the race over, I ask?
Seeing the life force in human beings brings medicine closer to gardening than to carpentry. I don’t fix a rosebush. A rosebush is a living process, and as a student of that process, I can learn to prune, to nurture and cooperate with it in ways that allow it best to “happen,” to maximize the life force in it even in the presence of disease.
I do not think that we will be able to attain health for all until we realize that we are all providers of each other’s health, and value what we have to offer each other as much as what experts have to offer us.
The Hindus use the greeting “Namaste” instead of our more noncommittal “Hello.” The connotation of this is roughly, “Whatever your outer appearance, I see and greet the soul in you.” I see the divine spark within you.
There is a Sufi story about a man who is so good that the angels ask God to give him the gift of miracles. God wisely tells them to ask him if that is what he would wish. So the angels visit this good man and offer him first the gift of healing hands, then the gift of conversion of souls, and lastly the gift of virtue. He refuses them all. They insist that he choose a gift or they will choose one for him. “Very well,” he replies. “I ask that I may do a great deal of good without ever knowing it.” The angels were perplexed. They took counsel and resolved upon the following plan: Every time the saint’s shadow fell behind him it would have the power to cure disease, soothe pain, and comfort sorrow. As he walked, behind him his shadow made arid paths green, caused withered plants to bloom, gave clear water to dried-up brooks, fresh color to pale children, and joy to unhappy men and women. The saint simply went about his daily life diffusing virtue as the stars diffuse light and the flowers scent, without ever being aware of it. The people respecting his humility followed him silently, never speaking to him about his miracles. Soon they even forgot his name and called him “the Holy Shadow.” (The silent Influencer)
What is most professional is not always was is most healing.
I found myself participating in discussion of healing rather than curing.
In The Prophet there is a drawing of a hand with a gentle and compassionate human eye in its palm. This is a traditional Hindu symbol for the healer. In the Hindu belief the energy centers called the chakras, in our palms, connect the hand and the heart of the healer and convey the wisdom and energy needed for the healing. This older idea of being able to “see” with your hands was for some reason compelling to me.
Each person is born with an unencumbered spot, free of expectation and regret, free of ambition and embarrassment, free of fear and worry, an umbilical spot of grace where we were each first touched by God. It is this spot of grace that issues peace. Psychologists call this spot the Psyche, Theologists call it the Soul, Jung calls is The Seat of the Unconscious, Hindu masters call it the Atman, Buddhists call it the Dharma, Rilke calls it Inwardness, Sufis call it Qualb, and Jesus calls it the Center of Our Love.
To know this spot of inwardness is to know who we are, not by surface markers of identity, not by where we work or what we wear or how we like to be addressed but by feeling our place in relation to the Infinite and by inhabiting it. This is a hard lifelong task, for the nature of becoming is a constant filming over of where we begin while the nature of being is a constant erosion of what is not essential. We each live in the midst of this ongoing tension, growing tarnished or covered over only to be worn back to that incorruptible spot of grace at our core. –Mark Nepo
Medical science has demonstrated that our simple caring for each other sustains us and enables us to better survive even such physical challenges as metastatic breast cancer. Community heals.
Understanding the suffering is beyond me. Understanding the healing is, too. But in this moment, I am here. Use me.
The very purpose of life is to grow in wisdom.
Children shrieking in the beautiful universal language of childhood.
We can see only what we have grown an eye to see.
But as I listened to more and more people with life-threatening illness tell their stories, not knowing simply became a matter of integrity. The truth was that very often I didn’t know and couldn’t explain, and finally, weighed down by the many, many instances of the mysterious which are such an integral part of illness and healing, I surrendered. It was a moment of awakening.
I used to try to offer people certainty in times which were not at all certain and could not be made certain. I now just offer my companionship and share my sense of mystery, of the possible, of wonder. I find it possible to neither doubt nor accept the unprovable but simply to remain open and wait. I accept that I may never know where truth lies in such matters. The most important questions don’t seem to have ready answers. But the questions themselves have a healing power when they are shared. An answer is an invitation to stop thinking about something, to stop wondering. Life has no such stopping places, life is a process whose every event is connected to the moment the just went by. An unanswered question is a fine traveling companion. It sharpens your eye for the road.
Much of life can never be explained but only witnessed.
Perhaps at the moment of death there is a reclaiming of the wholeness...and that wholeness may pass very close to us.
Educare, the root word of “education,” means to lead forth the innate wholeness in a person. So, in the deepest sense, that which truly educates us also heals us.
Perhaps wisdom is simply a matter of waiting, and healing a question of time. And anything good you’ve ever been given is yours forever.