Krista's Journal: Illumination from the "Edge of Life"

November 27, 2008

For the new year we revisit one of my favorite programs. As is often the case, I hear Rachel Naomi Remen differently with the passage of time and in this season. I'm also struck this year by the title we gave this conversation with her — Listening Generously. The longer I do this work, the more aware I am of listening as a discipline and vocation — and something I do with and for all of you. This is a great privilege, and a gift. I am immensely touched, though not surprised, by the deep reactions many have had to last week's conversation with Jean Vanier. And I'm excited about the programs ahead.

In January and February we have unusual, enriching conversations with, for example, Janna Levin, a delightful young cosmologist on mathematics and truth and meaning; Ed Husain, a young British Muslim who provides stunning social and spiritual insight into radicalized Islam in Europe; and Robert Millet, a leading religious educator of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints, and a lifelong Mormon, with a revealing introduction to Mormon spirituality and theology.

But back to this program. Listening to Rachel Naomi Remen is nourishing. She is not a religious figure per se, rather a kind of quiet modern-day mystic. Yet her wisdom is woven of personal and clinical experience with the spiritual contours of human life that are often piqued and pondered at this time of year, as many of us take stock and look forward.

As we do that, Rachel Naomi Remen — like Jean Vanier — would offer "prescriptions" that are somewhat countercultural. She would not have us neatly resolve to move beyond our failings and build on our successes. She would ask us to attend gently and patiently to the fullness of our lives — including and especially the losses large and small that define human experience. These include transitions in relationships, place, and vocation that mark every year of life, unsettling and rearranging our sense of self and our perspective on the world.

Living well, Rachel Naomi Remen says, is not about eradicating our losses, wounds, and weaknesses. It is about understanding how they continually complete our identity and equip us to help others. She's seen time and again how even deep pathologies and failures become the source of unsuspected strengths. She believes that however difficult our lives become or how fraught our choices, most of us never lose our capacity to be whole human beings. We may forget that potential in ourselves, yet it can reappear full-blown in times of crisis. She's seen this happen to many others and in her own life. The hope that her stories engender is itself a healing experience.

Rachel Naomi Remen and I speak about a formative story of hope in her own early life. Her Orthodox rabbi grandfather, a student of the Jewish mystical tradition of Kabbalah, taught it to her on her fourth birthday. He called it "the birthday of the world": In the beginning, the world was made of light. But by some accident, the light was scattered, and it lodged as countless sparks inside every aspect of creation. Now she understands her work as a doctor as a version of the pursuit that animated his life: the imperative to seek this original light in everything and everyone and gather it up and in so doing to repair, or heal, the world — tikkun olam. The task is more manageable than it sounds, she says. We are called to heal that part of the world we can touch. We all have this inclination and ability within us and with all of the components, light and dark, of the lives we have led.

The following passage from Naomi Remen's Kitchen Table Wisdom, which we read in this program, was written with physicians in mind. But it holds a resonant caution and challenge for all of us, I think, as we struggle to face — yet not be overwhelmed or numbed by — the pain and suffering that are a fact of human existence near and far.

The expectation that we can be immersed in suffering and loss daily and not be touched by it is as unrealistic as expecting to be able to walk through water without getting wet. This sort of denial is no small matter. The way we deal with loss shapes our capacity to be present to life more than anything else. The way we protect ourselves from loss may be the way in which we distance ourselves from life… We burn out not because we don't care but because we don't grieve. We burn out because we've allowed our hearts to become so filled with loss that we have no room left to care.

I wish you fullness of life in the year ahead, and a renewed capacity to care.

Recommended Reading

Image of Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories that Heal, 10th Anniversary Edition
Author: Rachel Naomi Remen
Publisher: Riverhead Books (2006)
Binding: Paperback, 384 pages

Coherent, elegant, mysterious, aesthetic," Rachel Naomi Remen writes in Kitchen Table Wisdom. "When I first earned my degree in medicine I would not have described life this way. But I was not on intimate terms with life then." Coherent, elegant, mysterious, and aesthetic are also apt words to describe the insights this book imparts in a rich medium of stories drawn from medicine and from life.

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is medical director of the Commonweal Cancer Help Program, and a clinical professor of family and community medicine at the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine. Her books include My Grandfather's Blessings, and Kitchen Table Wisdom.