Keeping It Together
Rachel Naomi Remen


When Harry discovered he had colon cancer, he was the administrator of a large insurance company.  The first in a family of farmers to attend college, he had excelled academically almost from the start.  He was known in the industry as a driving, politically sophisticated, and ambitious man whose career was his whole life.  His cancer had been caught early, and his prognosis was excellent.  Everyone had expected him to be back in his office as soon as his scars had healed.  But two days after he returned to work, Harry resigned.  It had taken everyone by surprise.

His company had suspected that he had received a better offer, but this was not the case.  Harry did not work for about a year.  Then he bought a vineyard and moved his family to it.  He has been growing grapes and making wine for the past five years.

"From the moment that I awoke from that surgery, Rachel," he told me, "I knew beyond a doubt that I was living someone else's life.  There had been so much pressure to succeed from my family; they were so proud that I had escaped from the hard life that we had led for generations.  I got caught up in the challenge of it all at first, wondering if I could do it, and then I just kept pushing it.  Somewhere in the process, I stopped listening to myself.  My father was a farmer and my grandfather  and my great-grandfather.  My father had hated this work, but I am a different sort of man; I understand the land and it matters to me.  I know this work as I know myself.  I belong here in a way that I never belonged anywhere else."

We sat on the deck of his home, looking over a vast green sea of grapevines gently moving in the wind.  Pink roses grew along his fence lines.  Double indemnity and corporate life were another world.  As if reading my thoughts, he turned to me with a rueful smile:  "My favorite saying used to be 'My way or the highway.'  I was so proud to be living personally and professionally on my own terms.  It was hard to see that I had sold myself out so completely that I had not even noticed."

Integrity is an ongoing process, a dynamic happening over time that requires our ongoing attention.  A medical colleague describing his own experience of staying true to himself told me that he thinks of his life as an orchestra.  Reclaiming his integrity reminds him of that moment before the concert when the concertmaster asks the oboist to sound an A.  "At first there is chaos and noise as all the parts of the orchestra try to align themselves with that note.  But as each instrument moves closer and closer to it, the noise diminishes and when they all finally sound it together, there is a moment of rest, of homecoming.

"This is how it feels to me," he told me.  "I am always tuning my orchestra.  Somewhere deep inside there is a sound that is mine alone, and I struggle daily to hear it and tune my life to it.  Sometimes there are people and situations that help me to hear my note more clearly; other times, people and situations make it harder for me to hear.  A lot depends on my commitment to listening and my intention to stay coherent with this note.  It is only when my life is tuned to my note that I can play life's mysterious and holy music without tainting it with my own discordance, my own bitterness, resentment, agendas, and fears."

Deep inside, our integrity sings to us whether we are listening or not.  It is a note that only we can hear.  Eventually, when life makes us ready to listen, it will help us to find our way home.

A second wonderful book of
short vignettes by Rachel Naomi
, My Grandfather's Blessings
is an exploration of the meanings
of life and living.  Remen uses the heart-rending stories of her patients
to teach readers how to follow in
her example, that is, combining a
life of service with a life of receiving
and giving blessings (a combination
that avoids common problems
such as burnout, self-sacrifice,
and navel gazing).

More on integrity.


Integrity simply means not violating one's own identity.

Erich Fromm


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