EarthLight Resources

EarthReview from Issue #24

Exploring the relationship of Ecology & Spirituality

Empowering individuals and faith communities
to live and work in touch with the Earth

EarthLight is a magazine published quarterly by the Unity with Nature Committee
of the Pacific Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends [Quakers]

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Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories that Heal

by Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D.
Riverhead Books, New York, 1996

Reviewed by Jean Barker [EL #24, Winter 1996-97, p 27]

I have been blessed in reading Rachel's stories. On a recent Earth & Spirit Bay Area Wilderness trip three of us women told our stories as we hiked on a trail. It was a deep bonding time. Telling stories is at the heart of personal sharing and Rachel shares her stories out of a lifetime of listening and loving as a doctor, helping to bring healing in the process. She says, "Everybody is a story. When I was a child, people sat around kitchen tables and told their stories...but real stories take time....Hidden in all stories is the One story. The more we listen, the clearer that Story becomes. Our true identity, who we are, why we are here, what sustains us, is in this Story."
Rachel has spent many years working with cancer patients. Many stories in this little volume speak of her time and experiences with people as they meet their true selves in the process of facing the presence of cancer in their bodies. I have chosen one story to share from her collection. I have chosen it because it is a fundamental story about healing. It is called "Just Listen".

I suspect that the most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen. Just listen. Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention. And especially if it's given from the heart. When people are talking, there's no need to do anything but receive them. Just take them in. Listen to what they're saying. Care about it. Most times caring about it is even more important than understanding it. Most of us don't value ourselves or our love enough to know this. It has taken me a long time to believe in the power of simply saying, 'I'm so sorry,' when someone is in pain. And meaning it.
One of my patients told me that when she tried to tell her story people often interrupted to tell her that they once had something just like that happen to them. Subtly her pain became a story about themselves. Eventually she stopped talking to most people. It was just too lonely. We connect through listening. When we interrupt what someone is saying to let them know that we understand, we move the focus of attention to ourselves. When we listen, they know we care. Many people with cancer talk about the relief of having someone just listen.
I have even learned to respond to someone crying by just listening. In the old days I used to reach for the tissues, until I realized that passing a person a tissue may be just another way to shut them down, to take them out of their experience of sadness and grief. Now I just listen. When they have cried all they need to cry, they find me there with them.
This simple thing has not been that easy to learn. It certainly went against everything I had been taught since I was very young. I thought people listened only because they were too timid to speak or did not know the answer. A loving silence often has far more power to heal and to connect than the most well intentioned words.

What a treasure this book is to read! It opens one up to the awesome power of love found in sharing through stories of the heart. On the jacket Jon Kabat-Zinn, author of Wherever You Go, There You Are, writes, "A book of stunning radiance, authenticity, and power. I laughed and cried my way through it, from beginning to end." This was my experience too.

Jean Barker is Earthlight's Circulation Manager, a lover of books and stories, and a great listener.

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Page last updated on 2/25/97 by Tom Farley of Spontaneous Combustion