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.

Remen quickly realized that there was no existing job description that matched her evolving sense of herself, so she decided to create one. "I wanted to help others feel the same sense of inner strength and wholeness that had allowed me to live with my disease," she says. So she set up shop in a storage closet on a houseboat in Sausalito and started counseling people with cancer and other serious illnesses. "I would get all the patients other doctors didn't know how to talk to, especially people who were dying."

In 1985, a few years into her counseling practice, a chance encounter with Michael Lerner (not to be confused with the author, Beliefnet columnist, and rabbi with the same name) opened new doors. Lerner, an environmental activist, ran a nonprofit center called Commonweal, located on a magnificent spit of land overlooking the Pacific near Pt. Reyes. He had been touched personally by cancer--his father, the political theorist Max Lerner, was struggling with the disease--and in a very short time, the Commonweal Cancer Help Program was added to the center's lineup, with Remen as medical director. Together with massage therapists and yoga instructors, Remen and Lerner began offering weeklong retreats for cancer patients. "We soon discovered the extraordinary power of community to heal," Remen says.

Although the retreats at Commonweal were enormously successful, they did nothing to heal the painful relationships most of the participants had with their doctors. "In every group, people would talk about how their physicians had failed them, even when they had helped them physically," Remen reports. Not only did she personally share their feelings of betrayal, she knew there was another way. That's why in 1991, Remen founded the Institute for Health and Illness at Commonweal and began to offer retreats for physicians.

"Most people go into medicine out of a profound reverence for life, with a deep wish to serve," she says, adding that medical training, which has been compared by many to life in abusive families, creates an alienated, demoralized, and burnt-out class of professionals. Managed care has only intensified the problem. "The retreats give doctors the opportunity to reclaim who they really are and why they got into medicine in the first place," says Remen.

A year after launching that program, she took her campaign "to heal the shadow of medicine" into the classroom, and began teaching courses in "The Healer's Art" to medical students and residents at the University of California, San Francisco, where she is Clinical Professor of Family and Community Medicine. But her efforts to heal the larger patient--our system of medicine--don't stop there. Her latest project is a national network of self-help groups for doctors--a sort of A.A. designed to offer support to those who feel isolated and stressed by the demands of their profession and to help them rediscover the true meaning of service.

"Only service heals," pronounces Remen, gazing at me with eyes that are at once loving and fierce. "Many times when we help, we don't really serve." True service, she explains, is a relationship between equals who bring the full resources of their humanity to the table and share them generously. In such a relationship, neither person is indebted to the other, and both people move closer to their own wholeness. Bottom line, "When you serve another person, you discover that life is holy," she says. "You lift up and restore the world."

It is this understanding that has brought Rachel Remen full circle, back to the loving lap of her grandfather, Meyer Ziskind, an orthodox Jewish rabbi who was steeped in the mysticism of the Kabbalah and who died when she was seven years old.

"He showed me a vision of the world in which life can always be trusted, despite suffering, disappointment, and loss," she says. "I've spent my life bumbling toward that vision without knowing that that's what I was doing. I spent many years trying to fix life, only to discover at the end of the day that life isn't broken."

more from beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad