Knowing Life
Rachel Naomi Remen


One of the things that I have learned since my medical training is that it is possible to study life for many years without knowing life at all.  Often things happen that science can’t explain.  Many very important things cannot be measured, but only observed, witnessed, and ultimately trusted.  Life may not be limited by the facts.  Science defines life in its own way, but perhaps life is larger than science.

A friend of mine, director of research at a nonprofit institute, had become interested in spontaneous remission of cancer.  As his interest became more widely known, people would call or write him to tell him their stories of unexplained recovery from serious illness.  One of these was a young man who claimed to have had a spontaneous healing from a dire form of bone cancer called osteogenic sarcoma.

He had been diagnosed many years ago as a college student.  Noticing a hard lump in his right thigh, he had gone to see a doctor.  A biopsy had confirmed the doctor’s suspicion of cancer, and he and his parents had been called to a meeting.  Sadly, the doctor told them of his findings and strongly recommended that he have his right leg amputated at the hip.  He was nineteen years old.  Despite the urging of several doctors and his parents, he had refused this surgery and had gone home to his parents’ farm without any treatment to live out his life.  Nothing further had been done for him except that the pastor of his church had asked those people who were so moved to pray for him at seven o’clock every night.  People prayed for two years.  Over time, the mass in his thigh had simply grown smaller and finally disappeared.

My friend was captivated by this story.  Through his work he had developed a researcher’s healthy skepticism, but the man seemed so genuine and matter-of-fact that he could not get the story out of his mind.  Finally he called to ask a favor.  Would I mind trying to track down the doctor who had made the original diagnosis and see if he would confirm this story or if he had kept medical records or a biopsy report?  "How long has it been?” I asked. “Twenty years,” said my friend ruefully. I started to express my doubts, but my friend interrupted. “Please try,” he said.  And so I did.

It turned out to be easy.  The doctor, a relatively young man at the time he treated this patient, was listed in his state’s medical association and still in practice.  Encouraged, I called and got him on the phone.  After the usual introduction, I told him that I was calling to see if he had kept the medical records on a former patient.  It was so long ago that I doubted he would remember, and then I told him the man’s name.  His response was immediate.  “Of course I remember him,” he said with feelings. “I’ve thought of him many times over the years.  What a senseless tragedy.  Are you calling on behalf of the family?”

“No,” I replied, and told him that the man was still alive.  “Thank God,” he said. “Where did he have his surgery?”

“He didn’t have surgery,” I replied.  There was a pause.  When he spoke again, I could detect a change in his voice.  “Then what happened?” he asked.  So I told him the story as it had been told to me.  There was a long silence and then, without another word, he hung up the phone.  I called him several times afterward, but he never returned my calls.

Most of us encounter a great deal more Mystery than we are willing to experience.  Sometimes knowing life requires us to suspend disbelief, to recognize that all our hard-won knowledge may only be provisional and the world may be quite different than we believe it to be.  This can be very stressful, even frightening.  But if we are not willing to wonder, we may have to hang up the phone on life.

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).


Both the person of science and the person of action live
always at the edge of mystery, surrounded by it.

J. Robert Oppenheimer


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