Sunday, October 31, 2010

Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories That Heal

By Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D.
New York, Penguin, 1996, 2006

Week 44    Spiritual

Isn’t it amazing how sometimes things fall into your lap with absolute perfect timing. Such is the case with the book, Kitchen Table Wisdom, which was lent to me by a friend. As you know, I have been spending a great deal of time with my mother and preparing for her death. Well, she died on Thursday, Oct. 21, and because I was reading this book, it became a great comfort to me. Additionally, I have recently been hired to prepare reviews of books and journal articles in the mental health field for a new website, and this book will be my first review, because I am convinced that every mental health professional needs to have a deep understanding of the concepts Remen presents. On this topic, Remen says, “According to the Buddhist understanding of auspicious coincidence, all circumstances can be brought to the spiritual path. Everything that happens in our lives, whether positive or negative, can serve to awaken us to the nature of the world. But occasionally, events cluster in particular ways that give us a glimpse of the deeper structures of reality, and suggest that time and linear causality may not be the ultimate way in which the world is ordered.”

The reader has to know a bit about Rachel Remen in order to understand Kitchen Table Wisdom fully. She is a doctor but also a patient. She has suffered from Crone’s disease all her adult life. Thus, she has great empathy for people facing disease and death. As a young physician, she realized that she had not been equipped to help patients on any level other than the physical, and she felt a great loss. When she tried to relate to her patients on a more humane level, she was criticized. Thinking there must be a better way, she began to develop a psychological approach for people with life-threatening illnesses and for the physicians who treat them. Thus she became one of the earliest pioneers in the mind/body health field.

Kitchen Table Wisdom is a compendium of her wisdom about life, illness, family, death, and all the other components of the mind/body connection. The book is constructed as a series of short chapters, on a variety of topics, with each section on a basic topic of the mind-body connection. The chapters are basically stories that Remen has collected in her lifetime of dealing with people. She believes in the concept of story, and that in order to understand someone and help someone, you must know their story. So, she tells her story, the stories of her patients, and the stories of the doctors that she trains to be compassionate healers. Each short chapter is self-contained. One reviewer commented that it is great bedtime reading, because the reader goes to sleep filled with words of comfort and healing.

The edition of the book I read is the tenth anniversary edition, and its wisdom is so enduring that I imagine there will be a twentieth anniversary edition. I can highly recommend this book to anyone who is dealing with what life is presenting us—and I guess that would be everyone. Here are a couple of interesting concepts:

Remen quibbles with the concept that “life is fragile.” She says that life is impermanent, but not fragile. “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.” “That tenacity toward life endures in all of us, undiminished, until the moment of our death.”

Another thought: “Perfectionism is the belief that life is broken.” She talks a lot about doctors and their basic belief that life is broken and it is their job to fix it. It reminded me of the visit my husband Lee’s oncologist paid to us on the day before Lee died. He had tried and tried to “fix” Lee; it had not happened. He put his arm around me and broke down in sobs, and I comforted him. He left his practice shortly after that and became a medical missionary, having realized that he was the one that needed healing.

Well, I could go on and on. This is a beautiful book, spiritual on many levels. When the reader finishes the book, they are blessed in so many ways and know that for all its impermanence, life is a marvelous journey until it is over. As one reviewer wrote, “Kitchen Table Wisdom shows us that a good story is like a compass of life’s journey, and reminds us of the power and joy of being fully human.”

Review on a mental health website:

Review in Journal of Psychiatry:

Interview with Rachel Remen:

Rachel Remen’s website:

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