On Naming and Awe
Rachel Naomi Remen

A label is a mask life wears.

We put labels on life all the time.  "Right," "wrong," "success," "failure," "lucky," "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 itself.

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 even kill.

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.

On 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 be seen.

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.

Rachel 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.

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If a culture treats a particular illness with compassion and enlightened
understanding, then sickness can be seen as a challenge, as a
healing crisis and opportunity.  Being sick is then not a condemnation
or a moral judgment, but a movement in a larger process
of healing and restoration.  When sickness is viewed positively and in
supportive terms, then illness has a much better chance to heal,
with the concomitant result that the entire person
may grow and be enriched in the process.

Ken Wilber


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It's supposed to be a professional secret, but I'll tell you anyway.
We doctors do nothing.  We only help and encourage the doctor
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within each patient a chance to go to work.

Albert Schweitzer


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