Rachel Naomi Remen believes in the healing power of stories. She trained as a pediatrician and expected to practice traditional medicine much as her father and other male members of her family had done before her, but something happened to change her carefully planned course.
In the introduction to Kitchen Table Wisdom, Remen tells how her male colleagues frequently knocked on her office door to ask for her help with a crying patient. They believed that she, as a woman, would know what to do. Though she knew no more than they, she felt flattered that they came to her and felt that this helped her be more a part of their exclusive "Old Boys Network." She began to spend more and more time listening to patients share their fears and feelings of living with a terminal disease.
Since the age of fifteen, Remen has suffered from Crohn's disease. As she listened to her patients, she began to feel less lonely and isolated. Probably, her guidance and uncanny understanding of her patients stemmed from her familiarity with physical and emotional pain.
Kitchen Table Wisdom is a compilation of eighty-eight poignant stories that Remen heard over many years, as well as stories of her own life. Her stories demonstrate her belief that a larger process is at work in all our lives and that human beings are "unfinished, a work in progress." She believes we come into the world whole but lose faith in our wholeness and become discouraged by feelings of not being pretty enough, smart enough, etc. " ... our wholeness exists in us now," she writes, "Trapped though it may be, it can be called upon for guidance, direction and most fundamentally, comfort."
No retelling of Remen's stories can do them justice. One of my favorites is "The Question"--a story told by a patient named Tim (now a cardiologist) of his experience at the age of fifteen with his father, who was in the last stages of Alzheimeršs disease. At the time, his father had not spoken for ten years and was totally helpless. Tim and his brother were alone with their father when he suddenly slumped over and fell to the floor. The brother was calling 911 when both boys heard a voice commanding, "Don't call 911, son. Tell your mother that I love her. Tell her that I am all right." With those words, the man died. An autopsy later revealed that Tim's father's brain had been entirely destroyed by the disease. Tim never stops wondering who spoke those final words. He tells Dr. Remen, "Much of life can never be explained but only witnessed."
The author believes that talking about and sharing onešs feelings revives memories that can lead to important new insights about onešs life, bringing about a healing that formal treatment is unable to offer. She says that Shamans believe illness is a direct indication of soul loss. The soul, she explains, is that which is aware of the sacredness we carry and the sacredness that exists in the external world as well. Losing our appreciation for our sacredness, living with sadness, with feelings of unworthiness can manifest illness.
"Life is the ultimate teacher...," she writes. "It is through experience, and not scientific knowledge or expert academic training alone that we learn our deepest lessons." In her lectures and writings, Dr. Remen likes to tell of a sign on the wall of a room in Florida where the elderly come to play Bingo. It reads, "You Have to Be Present to Win." And so it is in life.
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