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Living All the Way

Illness as Spiritual Path and Medicine as Calling
by Rachel Naomi Remen

-excerpts from Exposing the Medical Crisis of Modern Medicine in The Life of Meaning, Seven Stories Press,, 2007.

Over time an illness can become a spiritual path. If one genuinely and unflinchingly meets the difficulties of an illness, especially a serious illness, the person you are at the end can be larger than the person you were going in, and all those around you can become larger people and live deeper lives as well. This is possible even in the absence of cure. We can't cure everything or even most things. Cure was the great hope when the age of scientific medicine burst in on us-we were going to be able to fix it all. We now know that a great many things can't be fixed, but even so, the possibility of growing beyond our limitations, of becoming able to live more deeply and passionately with greater meaning is always there, even in the absence of cure. It's possible to live a good life even though it is not an easy life.

There is a real difference between healing and curing. I think my deep interest in this difference grows out of my own life experience. I was diagnosed with Crohn's disease fifty-two years ago, and I haven't been a well person in more than half a century. When I first became sick nobody knew how to cure this disease, nobody even knew what caused it. This is still true today. Years ago I was told that I would need many surgeries and would be an invalid. I was also told that I would die by the time I was forty. But as time went on, I became aware that something hidden was growing in me, something stronger than my disease. Slowly it changed me and gave me new eyes. I looked at the world differently and found in myself capacities I did not know existed. Perhaps they did not exist before I became so sick. Eventually I no longer ran from other people in trouble. I actually became stronger as a person, much more loving, much wiser as a person. Over the years I have had eight major surgeries and live with physical limitations, but I am much more able to live because of these experiences. I am able to do much larger work in the world because of it. I would say that I am much more whole. And because of my long experience I am very aware of this potential for healing in us all…

…I often wonder if this work (medicine) is actually a calling. Perhaps there is something about the way that we are made inside that has brought us to this profession. The people who do this work move toward situations that many people would avoid and pull back from. When someone is in trouble or in great need, especially someone that you do not know, a lot of people pull back or look the other way. But the people who go into medicine have a different sort of response. They are magnetized toward such situations, not because of what they know, but because of the way they are made inside. And because of this, they recognize that somehow they belong in places of need and trouble. When I teach, I often ask medical students and doctors, "How old were you when you first realized that the needs of living things-insects, plants, and animals-mattered to you? How many people were between twenty and twenty-five, how many people were between fifteen and twenty?" Over the years I have asked these same questions of many thousands of physicians and students. The great majority of those I have asked say that they were under fifteen when they first realized that they moved toward the unmet needs of living things with an intent to make a difference. So medical expertise is only the more most recent set of tools with which they have responded to the needs of life around them. And their intent to make a difference in life around them-their service impulse-has been a way of life for them, long before they were experts, from the time that they were young. We are in this work not because of what we know, but because of who we are…

…I think that the spiritual core of medicine is at risk at this moment. We could demean this work and become biological technicians, but that's not what medicine is about; it's never been what medicine is about. Medicine is not a work of science, it is a work of service, and service is a special kind of love. The prayer of Maimonides, the great physician/rabbi of the fourteenth century says, "Inspire me with love for all thy creatures. May I see in all who suffer only the fellow human being." Medicine is about the capacity to value human life as a holy thing, to recognize the life of total strangers as being as valuable as your own. And if anything is needed in this world today it's just that-the ability to move beyond our differences and respond with compassion to the pain and trouble of people whose names we don't even know, who share with us only the bond of a common humanity.

The Mourning News - February 2011

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