A label is a mask life wears.
We put labels on life all the time.
"Right," "wrong," "success,"
"unlucky," may be as limiting a way of seeing
things as "diabetic," "epileptic,"
"manic-depressive," or even
"invalid." Labeling sets up an expectation
of life that is often so compelling we can no longer see
things as they really are. This expectation often
gives us a false sense of familiarity toward something
that is really new and unprecedented. We are in
relationship with our expectations and not with life
Which brings up the idea that we may become as wounded by
the way in which we see an illness as by the illness
itself. Belief traps or frees us. Labels may
become self-fulfilling prophecies. Studies of voodoo
death suggest that in certain circumstances belief may
We may need to take our labels and even our experts far
more lightly. Some years ago I served on the
dissertation committee of a woman in the Midwest, who was
studying spontaneous remission of cancer. Among the
people who answered her ad in the paper asking for people
who thought they may have had an unusual experience of
healing was a farmer who had done exceptionally well
despite a dire prognosis.
the phone one evening, she told me about him. She
felt his outcome was related to his attitude.
"He didn't take it on," she said.
Confused, I asked her if he had denied that he had
cancer. No, she said, he had not. He had just
taken the same attitude toward his physician's prognosis
that he took towards the words of the government soil
experts who analyzed his fields. As they were
educated men, he respected them and listened carefully as
they showed him the findings of their tests and told him
that the corn would not grow in this field. He
valued their opinions. But, as he told my student,
"A lot of the time the corn grows anyway."
In my experience, a diagnosis is an opinion and not a
prediction. What would it be like if more people
allowed for the presence of the unknown, and accepted the
words of their medical experts in this same way? The
diagnosis is cancer. What that will mean remains to
Like a diagnosis, a label is an attempt to assert control
and manage uncertainty. It may allow us the security
and comfort of a mental closure and encourage us not to
think about things again. But life never comes to a
closure; life is process, even mystery. Life is
known only by those who have found a way to be comfortable
with change and the unknown. Given the nature of
life, there may be no security, but only adventure.
Remen has a unique perspective on healing rooted in
her background as a physician, a professor of
medicine, a therapist, and a long-term survivor of
chronic illness. In a deeply moving and
down-to-earth collection of true stories, this
prominent physician shows us life in all its power
and mystery and reminds us that the things we cannot
measure may be the things that ultimately sustain
and enrich our lives.