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

July 29, 2010

This week we revisit one of my favorite programs. As is often the case, I hear Rachel Naomi Remen differently with the passage of time. I'm also struck right now 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.

And listening to Rachel Naomi Remen is nourishing. She is not a religious figure per se, rather a kind of quiet modern-day mystic. Her wisdom is somewhat countercultural. Living well, she 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. As a doctor 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. The hope that her stories engender is itself a healing experience.

I've been ever after changed by her telling of the 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. The highest human calling is to look for this original light from where we sit, to point to it and gather it up and in so doing to repair the world — Tikkun Olam.

This might sound like an idealistic and fanciful idea. But Rachel Naomi Remen calls it an important and empowering image for our time. It insists that each one of us, flawed and inadequate as we may feel, has exactly what's needed to help repair the part of the world that we can see and touch. This story is a practical tool — the kind of practical tool religious traditions carry forward in time — for a world longing to address images of suffering that can otherwise overwhelm us.

The following passage from Naomi Remen's Kitchen Table Wisdom, which we hear 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 glorious days of summer, and a renewed capacity to care.

Voices on the Radio

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