Consider the paradox: we refer to “out-look” as perspectives. Principles that guide us, perhaps, but very personal and internal nonetheless. Yet we refer to “in-sight” as concepts shared externally, and with others. Rachel Naomi Remen is a renowned physician who pushes the boundaries between these ways of seeing, a Goddess of sorts who shares her vision in the Winter 2019 issue of Parabola.
There is no direct link online to her conversation with Richard Whittaker published in Parabola, so permit me to quote Whittaker’s intro followed by a few excerpts:
The name resonated in an undefined, positive way: Rachel Naomi Remen. “Have you heard of her?” I asked my wife. “Isn’t she the author of Kitchen Table Wisdom?” my wife replied. Indeed, and I’d heard of the book, a bestseller. There was another one, too: My Grandfather’s Blessing, also a bestseller. I’d read neither, and yet somehow, I’d absorbed the sense of these books like the sound of a bell in the distance, a new influence appearing in Western medicine that came out of the work done at the Esalen Institute almost fifty years ago and which led to the founding of The Institute for the Study of Humanistic Medicine.
Being part of that was a deeply transformative experience for Remen, so much so that she left her position as Associate Director of the Pediatrics Clinic at the Stanford Medical School to strike out in a new and, at the time, revolutionary direction. From what followed, once can only say she was listening to a call from destiny …
… In her early eighties, Remen continues her work. She is the founding director of the Remen Institute for the Study of Health and Illness at Wright State University’s Boonshoft School of Medicine. She is also a clinical professor of family and community medicine at UCSF School of Medicine, San Francisco, California.
RNR (Rachel Naomi Remen): “Science offers us the dream of mastery. We’ve traded mystery for mastery … Mystery is part of the yin. And with that comes a whole other question of what it means to be a human being. To what larger and unknowable thing are we connected? And what do we manifest of that in our daily life and relationships with each other? It’s a different and very old way of seeing …
… My grandfather was an Orthodox rabbi. He would sit at his library table reading Kabbalah … I’m reminded of the story of the Lamed Vav Tzadikim – The 36 Righteous Ones. I remember hearing this story and asking, ‘Who are they grandpa?’ He said, ‘Ah, Neshumela. Nobody knows. They themselves don’t even know. You might be a member of the thirty-six so you must behave as though you are’ …
… At the very moment we are sitting here more than half of the American medical students are young women. This is becoming a woman’s profession, which is not to say these women are not cognitively brilliant and decisive, and all of these things. But they were also little girls. They were permitted a certain bandwidth of response to the world that little boys are generally not permitted.”
RW (Richard Whittaker): What brought you to the point of leaving that world and quitting your job?
RNR: Remember, when I put away the feminine I put away all my philosophy work as well. It’s something that can’t be measured. Except that medicine is a philosophy. And at some level I connected with it as only a philosophy major can. It’s a way of life. It’s very old.
RW: And if you go back into this lineage, the doctor took care not only of the patient’s body, but the soul, too.
RNR: The whole patient, including the heart, which is a way of seeing. The heart is an organ of seeing, basically.
In 1991 at UCSF, Dr. Whittaker started a student elective called “The Healer’s Art.” It is for first-year medical students before they encounter what she refers to as the shadow of medicine; the part that says. “Shut down everything. What you can fix is what’s important.” Thirty-thousand medical students have taken this course now in a hundred medical schools across the country. It is her contribution to the mission of what she has written about as recapturing the soul of medicine.
At a fundamental level, Dr. Remen’s outlook reflects important distinctions between education and training, and her insights illuminate the difference between fixing and healing. With regard to Optometry and Ophthalmology, my sharing of these thoughts are in no way intended to diminish what “traditional” eyecare professionals can and do accomplish. They are meant to convey the unparalleled ability of those who excel in optometric vision therapy to listen with intent, to impart a sense of empathy, and to help the patient develop or re-gain a very personal way of seeing.