To Life! _Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories That Heal_ by Rachel Naomi Remen

Remen, Rachel N., Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories That Heal. The Berkley Group, NY. 1996.

I checked this book out of the library because someone I knew, had been diagnosed with breast cancer, stage 4. I thought since Rachel Remen had dedicated so much of her life to working with people who were in the late stages of cancer, I could gain insight into a world about which I was certain I knew nothing. As I began to read I realized how much I needed this book; not because I wanted a better understanding of life threatening illness, but because it extends beyond the narrow category of incurable illness and death to that which is life. It is a book filled with stories. Stories of struggle; stories of strength; stories of life. I read the book in two days and each time I picked it up I felt as if I were being transported to some place outside of all the cultural constraints associated with time. I wanted to cry through much of the reading because it reminded me of who I have forgotten … I could hear Jack Kornfield saying, “oh you who are nobly born,” in what Rachel Remen, when speaking about the “life force,” referred to as our “birthright.” Yes, I had forgotten that the life in me is worthy to be a right; not only is it a right; but it is fierce in its determination to live.

“Accidents and natural disasters often cause people to feel that life is fragile. In my experience, life can change abruptly and end without warning, but life is not fragile. There is a difference between impermanence and fragility.”

page 7

The difference between impermanence and fragility is so important. I was raised in a family that conflated and confused the two. Life changes, and for some reason it was understood in my family as life is fragile, and within this bit of fragility life was unforgiven and more often than not, unfair. Holding on to life as fragile meant we hardly took risks. Getting hurt was not something any of us wanted to do — like most people. But, in my family we concluded that getting hurt could be avoided by not doing anything involving risk. Risk avoidance applied to everything from outside adventures to business, to study and to relationships. I remember my mom used to advise me not to have just one friend. I should spread myself around so that if I lost a friend I would have another; that is, I would not have to feel the pain of losing.

Rachel Remen, through her personal stories and through the stories of her patients lays out her journey to becoming wise. Each story challenges us to think about our lives, the way we live, what we reject, and ignore, and how we treat the people who are close to us, and also how we treat ourselves. She asks us to consider that perhaps, what we have been taught makes a good life is actually at odds with a life truly lived. Interestingly, she is a medical doctor, a pediatrician by training, and then a therapist to people who were dying from cancer and to the doctors who treated them. She is not married and does not have children. A criticism could be that she does not understand the pain of poverty, the shame of not achieving, and the heartache in raising children. But, Rachel Remen does not hide her own story from us. She has suffered greatly. She was diagnosed with Chrohn’s disease when she was in her teens and given a life expectancy of forty. She is now in her eighties. At that time (she was born in 1938), medicine was still fairly crude and awkward in its ability to deliver a remedy. The pain and near death experiences she lived give her voice strength and credibility. She embodies one whose compassion has come through her suffering. A wounded healer, as Henri Nouwen would remind us.

While Kitchen Table Wisdom is a collection of stories from Rachel Remen’s life; from her talks with her beloved grandfather and mother and father, from her medical experience both as a student and as practitioner and finally as she becomes a therapist; it has a certain feel that is unlike a mere memoir or a collection of nonfiction essays. It has the quality and power of myth. These stories happen, over and over again to all of us. To me, Rachel Remen is a storyteller, as her grandfather, her voice is steady and calm, and what she offers is a refuge; a sacred space to stop and feel love.

With each one of her stories there are revelations that reveal themselves under her discerning eye. We sometimes make the revelations with her and in doing so we are given the gift of freedom. I felt this especially when she connected judgment to approval, which, as Rachel Remen gently points out, we often forget is still judging. In a sense her wisdom is the wisdom of the Buddha, but not necessarily and exclusively Buddhist.

“Judgment does not only take the form of criticism. Approval is also a form of judgment. When we approve of people, we sit in judgment of them as surely as when we criticize them. Positive judgment hurts less acutely than criticism, but it is judgment all the same and we are harmed by it in far more subtle ways. To seek approval is to have no resting place, no sanctuary. Like all judgment, approval encourages a constant striving. It makes us uncertain of who we are and of our true value. This is as true of the approval we give ourselves as it is of the approval we offer others. Approval can’t be trusted. It can be withdrawn at any time no matter what our track record has been. It is as nourishing of real growth as cotton candy. Yet many of us spend our lives pursuing it.”

page 35

Remen goes on to explain that love and approval are not the same thing. Love is a refuge. As a parent I struggle with the tension between love and approval constantly. While I do not want my children to believe I love them because they do what I say; certainly, I would like for them to do what I say. And, while it seems almost easy to say we can love the being, but not his/her acts; I believe it is far more difficult to disentangle our love from our approval and disapproval. Can we love someone for who s/he truly is?

Children can learn early that they are loved for what they do and not simply for who they are. To a perfectionistic parent, what you do never seems as good as what you might do if you tried just a little harder. The life of such children can become a constant striving to earn love. Of course, love is never earned. It is a grace we give one another. Anything we need to earn is only approval.

page 47

Imagine if we could see ourselves as not needing to be fixed? Our wholeness includes all the parts we label broken; all the parts we try to fix; all the parts we ignore. Our uniqueness, Rachel Remen’s stories tell us, depends on all the pieces. In hiding those pieces we effectively hide ourselves.

What is intriguing about Rachel Remen’s stories is that they explore remembrance right at the edge of the absolute unknown.

Wholeness is never lost, it is only forgotten.

page 108

Death seems to reveal itself not as the great equalizer in the sense that we all die, but rather that it enters as a light that finally comes through the darkness to show us that wisdom or enlightenment is open to everyone.

A certain percentage of those who have survived near death experiences speak of a common insight which afforded a glimpse of life’s basic lesson plan. We are all here for a single purpose: to grow in wisdom and to learn to love better. We can do this through losing as well as through winning, by having and by not having, by succeeding or by failing. All we need to do is show up openhearted for class.

page 80

One of the most important messages in Kitchen Table Wisdom is the need to grieve. Suffering alone cannot transform us, but rather the ability to grieve begins the process of transformation. Without grieving there is no transformation; only trauma.

We burn out not because we don’t care but because we don’t grieve.

page 52

As I read through Rachel Remen’s book I wondered if we know how to grieve and if we too quickly replace a loss with something else and walk away as if what we once had and lost was of little consequence in our lives? Ironically, we are a culture that talks a lot about our grievances, but I do not think talking about our grievances is the same thing as grieving. Grieving, it seems to me, means you have suffered and have lost. Talking about our grievances seems closer to outrage; perhaps it is a softer version of outrage. It does not acknowledge loss; it fights against it.

Suffering is intimately connected to wholeness. The power in suffering to promote integrity is not only a Christian belief, it has been a part of almost every religious tradition. Yet twenty years of working with people with cancer in the setting of unimaginable loss and pain suggests that this may not be a teaching or a religious belief at all but rather some sort of natural law. That is, we might learn it not by divine revelation but simply through a careful and patient observation of the nature of the world. Suffering shapes the life force, sometimes into anger, sometimes into blame and self-pity. Eventually it may show us the freedom of loving and serving life.

page 118

A pattern emerges through Rachel Remen’s stories: suffering, wholeness, grieving, commitment, these words are formed into an undeniable knot that paradoxically can create an unbreakable freedom, which happens when we stay together; when we are committed to each other; when we lose and when we acknowledge each other in our shared humanness of living in joy and sorrow. Rachel Remen, however, is careful to make distinctions, because there always are distinctions and near-enemies to freedom:

Indeed, many people have found that it is difficult to tell the difference between attachment and commitment in their own lives. Yet, attachment leads farther and farther into entrapment. Commitment, though it may sometimes feel constricting, will ultimately lead to greater degrees of freedom. Both involve in the moment an experience of holding, sometimes against the flow of events or against temptation. One can distinguish between the two in most situations by noticing over time whether one has moved through this activity or this relationship closer to freedom or closer to bondage.

page 192

We must also be careful to understand freedom as responsibility and not as doing whatever it is we feel like doing at the moment. As Belden Lane writes in the The Solace of Fierce Landscapes, sometimes freedom is choosing the life you were given.

Rachel Remen has become wise not only as a result of her many interactions and relationships with people who are facing death, but also through science, the very means we use to fight death. Interestingly, her insight goes beyond the known and rests in the unknown. For Rachel Remen it is the mystery that moves us and creates a space for healing.

Mystery seems to have the power to comfort, to offer hope, and to lend meaning in times of loss and pain.

page 293

And while we rely on science to provide better and better accommodations for us, there is a limit to answers.

An answer is an invitation to stop thinking about something, to stop wondering.

page 293

And so we close Kitchen Table Wisdom with a blessing to live life as it is with all its lovely brokenness.

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