A Story That Heals
Since we started Someone To Tell It To nearly two years ago, we have made it a habit or a spiritual practice/discipline of reading together, to learn, to grow, and we hope, to impart wisdom and encouragement to others who need it. One of the books we have been reading lately is a book by a Medical Doctor named Rachael Naomi Remen. Nearly ten years ago she wrote an extremely moving and an extremely inspiration book called Kitchen Table Wisdom. One (of the many) stories which has been especially significant in the book is a story called “The Container”. Today we wanted to share it with you to, we pray, encourage those of you who are suffering or hurting in some way today. Here’s a story of someone who turned his suffering around for the good. It is kind of a long story to share in a blog, but it is well worth your time.
Kitchen Table Wisdom
by Rachael Naomi Remen, M.D.
Often anger is a sign of engagement with life. People who are angry are touched deeply by the events of their lives and feel strongly about them. As an emotion, it has its limitations and it certainly has very bad press, but my experience with ill people suggests that there is something healthy about it. Certainly the cancer studies by Levi, Temoshak, and Greer suggest that many people who recover become angry first. Anger is just a demand for change, a passionate wish for things to be different, it can be a way to reestablish important boundaries and assert personal integrity in the face of a body-and life-altering disease. And, as it was for me, it may be the first expression for the will to live. Anger becomes a problem for people only when they become wedded to it as a way of life.
One of the angriest people I have ever worked with was a young man with Osteogenic sarcoma of the right leg. He has been a high school and college athlete and until the time of his diagnosis his life had been good. Beautiful woman, fast cars, personal recognition. Two weeks after his diagnosis, they had removed his right leg above the knee. This surgery, which saved his life, also ended his life. Playing ball was a thing of the past.
These days there are many sorts of self-destructive behaviors open to an angry young man like this. He refused to return to school. He bagan to drink heavily, to use drugs, to alienate his former admieres and friends, and to have one automobile accident after the other. After the second of these, his former coach called and referred him to me.
He was a powerfully built and handsome man. Profoundly self-oriented and isolated. At the beginning, he had the sort of rage that felt very familiar to me. Filled with a sense of injustice and self-pity, he hated all the well people. In our second meeting, hoping to encourage him to show his feelings about himself, I gave him a drawing pad and asked him to draw a picture of his body. He drew a crude sketch of a vase, just an outline. Running through the center of it he drew a deep crack. He went over and over the crack with a black crayon, gritting his teeth and ripping the paper. He had tears in his eyes. There were tears of rage. It seemed to me that the drawing was a powerful statement of his pain and the finality of his loss. It was clear that this broken vase could never hold water, could never function as a vase again. It hurt to watch. After he left, I folded the picture up and saved it. It seemed too important to throw away.
In time, his anger began to change in suble ways. He began one session by handing me an item torn from our local newspaper. It was an article about a motorcycle accident in which a young man had lost his leg. The doctors were quoted at length. I finished reading and looked up. “Those idiots don’t know the first thing about it,” he said furiously. Over the next month he brought in more of these articles, some from the paper and some from magazines: a girl who had been severly burned in a house fire, a boy whose hand had been partially destroyed in the explosion of his chemistry set. His reactions were always the same, a harsh judgment of the well meaning efforts of doctors and parents. His anger about these other young people began to occupy more and more of our session time. No one understood them, no one was there for them, no one really knew how to help them. He was still enraged, but it seemed to me that underneath this anger a concern for others was growing. Encouraged, I asked him if he wanted to do anything about it. Caught by surprise, at first he said no. But, just before he left he asked me if I thought he could meet some of these others who suffered injuries like his…
Within a few weeks, he had begun to visit young people on the surgical wards whose problems were similar to his own.
HE came back from these visits full of stories, delighted to find that he could reach young people. He was often able to be of help when no one else could…Gradually his anger faded and he developed a sort of ministry. I just watched and listened and appreciated.
My favorite of all his stories concerned a visit to a young woman who had a tragic family history: breast cancer had claimed the lives of her mother, her sister, and her cousin. Another sister was in chemotherapy. This last event had driven her into action. At twenty-one she took one of the only options open at that time, she had both her breasts removed surgically.
He visited her on a hot mid-summer day, wearing shorts, his artificial leg in full view. Deeply depressed, she lay in bed with her eyes closed, refusing to look at him. He tried everything he knew to reach her, but without success. He said things to her that only another person with an altered body would dare to say. He made jokes. He even got angry. She did respond. All the while a radio was softly playing rock music. Frustrated, he finally stood, and at a last effort to get her attention, he unstrapped the harness of his artificial leg and let it drop to the floor with a loud thump. Startled, she opened her eyes and saw him for the first time. Encouraged, he began to hop around the room snapping his fingers in time to the music and laughing out loud. After a moment she burst out laughing too. “Fella,” she said, “if you can dance, maybe I can sing.”
This young woman became his friend and began to visit people in the hospital with him. She was in school and she encouraged him to return to school to study psychology and dream of carrying his work further. Eventually she became his wife, a very different sort of person from the models and cheer leaders he had dated in the past. But long before this, we ended our sessions together. In our final meeting, we were reviewing the way he had come, the sticking points and the turning points. I opened his chart and found the picture of the broken vase that he had drawn two years before. Unfolding it, I asked him if he remembered the drawing he had made of his body. He took it in his hands and looked at it for some time. “You know,” he said, “it’s really not finished.” Surprised, I extended my basket of crayons towards him. Taking a yellow crayon, he began to draw lines radiating from the crack in the vase to the very edges of the paper. Thick yellow lines. I watched, puzzled. He was smiling. Finally he put his finger on the crack, looked at me and said softly, “This is where the light comes through.”
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.