A few years ago, Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D., was enjoying supper with a friend when she became aware of two men talking at the next table. One of the men, named Steve, was telling his friend about support groups that he and his colleagues ran for impoverished Latino parents who had lost children to illness, accidents, or violence. As he related his story, Steve was close to tears, recalls Remen. Apparently the program, which had helped over a hundred grief-stricken families put their lives back together, was about to lose its funding. "How much money do you need to continue?" the friend inquired. "More than we could ever raise," Steve said sadly. "Four thousand dollars."
At that moment, Remen--who had recently been asked by a philanthropist friend to help her distribute $20,000--leaned across the narrow space that separated their tables and touched Steve lightly on the arm. "You got it," she said, opening her purse and pulling out her checkbook.
This story is not about turning your bank balance over to the nearest hard-luck case; it's about living from the heart. "You don't have to have money or special skills to serve others," says Remen, the best-selling author of "Kitchen Table Wisdom." We all have assets, she says. "Very often, a loving gesture, a warm smile, or an unexpected phone call is all it takes. You can befriend life with your bare hands."
This is the message in her new book, "My Grandfather's Blessings: Stories of Strength, Refuge, and Belonging" (Riverhead, $24.95), in which she weaves together life lessons she learned from her grandfather with her own tales of healing through service--the star by which she now steers her own life.
|"Very often, a loving gesture, a warm smile, or an unexpected phone call is all it takes. You can befriend life with your bare hands."|
It's not that Remen wasn't committed to helping others before--the wish to serve inspired her to become a doctor--it's just that her understanding of service has changed radically. "I used to think that the way to help was by becoming an expert," she reflects, looking eastward across San Francisco Bay from her deck at the foot of Mt. Tamalpais in Mill Valley, Calif. "I was trained to fix people, to rescue them. There was no sense that patients had anything to contribute to their own healing, or that we as doctors had anything to learn from them."
Remen was probably more disposed than most physicians to adopt an enlightened view of healing. At 15, she was diagnosed with Crohn's Disease, a chronic, debilitating, and sometimes life-threatening bowel ailment. "All the best doctors told me there was no cure, that I would have multiple surgeries and die by the age of 40," Remen says. Shortly after the diagnosis, she fell into a coma for six months, lost 35 pounds, and was kept alive by powerful drugs that caused her to grow a full beard for a time. She has had eight abdominal surgeries and continues to wrestle with the disease to this day. Most poignant is the fact that the specious death sentence handed down by her doctors kept her from marrying or having children.
Yet, her disease has also nourished her in profound and unexpected ways. "Even though my body was compromised, I had a sense of inner wholeness despite my obvious outer vulnerability," says the now-62-year-old physician. "But if just one of my doctors had pointed out that I could live a good life even though I had this disease, it would have made an enormous difference," she adds.
|"When you serve another person, you discover that life is holy," she says. "You lift up and restore the world."|
Still, her own illness notwithstanding, Remen practiced conventional medicine until she was well into her 30s. But in the early '70s, while a pediatrician at Stanford University Medical Center, she was invited to attend a series of seminars at the Esalen Institute, where she encountered such luminaries of the human potential movement as Fritz Perls, Michael Murphy, and George Leonard. After that, life at Stanford was never the same. "I could communicate with my patients and their families, but not my colleagues," she recalls. Shortly after being promoted at age 34, she bailed.