The Power of Wholeness
— by Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D.
In 1962 when I graduated from medical school the goal of medicine was cure. Anything less was considered failure. Yet many things that bring people to us cannot be cured. Fortunately cure is not the only successful outcome of our relationships to our patients. There is a great deal more to personal wholeness than physical health and more that medicine can offer beyond the curing of disease. Over time I’ve come to think of physical health not as a goal but as a means that enables people to pursue what has meaning and value in life. People may do this whether they are physically healthy or not. People even respond to significant illness by growing in their capacity to love and feel compassion for others, in their sensitivity and understanding, and in their courage and passion and wisdom. Because of this people for whom there is no cure may be able to affect the world around them in ways that would not have been possible before.
“.Our power to heal is far less limited than our
…power to cure. Healing is not a relationship
…between an expert and a problem…
…it is a relationship between human beings.”
—Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D.
Sadly many of us may not have the chance to see this outcome. In the time frame of today’s medicine we may meet a patient in the depths of crisis, make a time limited intervention, and never get the chance to see how things play out. The physician who first diagnosed me with severe Chrohn’s disease when I was 15 years old, told me and my family that I would be an invalid and could expect to live at most another 25 years. I met him again when both of us had grown old, at a book signing on the east coast for my New York Times bestseller, Kitchen Table Wisdom. He told me that he had come to see if I was the daughter of the desperately sick young girl he had known so many years before. When he discovered I was that young girl, tears filled his eyes. We may have failed far fewer people than we know.
Over the past 57 years many physicians who have failed to cure me have helped me to heal. Healing is a potential in all relationships and at all times. Our power to heal is far less limited than our power to cure. Healing is not a relationship between an expert and a problem … it is a relationship between human beings. In the presence of another whole person, no one needs to feel ashamed of their present pain or weakness and become separated from others because of it. No one needs to feel alone and small.
To help others heal we may need to bring our own wholeness with us into our examining rooms: our strengths, our courage, our caring, our vulnerability, even at times our anger and our fears. We may need to become more than we have been trained to be. Our training may have caused us to focus so narrowly on our professional skills as what we offer, that we have sold both ourselves and our patients short. Perhaps our power to make a difference in the lives of others is far greater than the sum of our techniques and expertise. Perhaps we can tend the will to live in others with just our bare hands.
We are trained to perfection as a goal, but often it is the wisdom gained from our own experiences of woundedness, vulnerability and healing that can empower us to help others. Our own history may help us to recognize the beginnings of strength in a present challenge and enable us to better accompany others as they discover ways to heal. It can enable us to trust the process of healing, not as an idea but as a lived experience. It can help us be less afraid.
According to Jung, wounded people are best healed by other wounded people. Other wounded people understand that what is needed for the healing of suffering is compassion and companionship, not expertise. Many times my expertise has been far less critical to the eventual outcome for my patient than my presence and my remembering the hidden capacity for wholeness in myself and everyone else… even under extraordinary circumstances. I am humbled by how often what helps a patient find themselves and their strength in hard times and begin the direction of a new life has nothing to do with my hard won medical knowledge. I have often made a difference because of something I learned about life in my garden, or from my Russian grandmother, or even from my own dark times.
Trusting the power of our own humanity and remembering the power of the humanity of our patients opens doors of possibility. To quote Bruce Barton,
I believe this to be true about my patients… often long before they can begin to believe it about themselves.