Over the last three decades, Rachel Naomi Remen has led the medical field in reclaiming and teaching compassionate and integrative medical care. She recently spoke with On Being‘s Krista Tippett about her experiences in the field, her spirituality, and what she’s noticed about the links between suffering, grief, and burnout. The following quotation, shared in the interview, comes from her book, Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories that Heal:
The expectation that we can be immersed in suffering and loss daily and not be touched by it is as unrealistic as expecting to be able to walk through water without getting wet. This sort of denial is no small matter. The way we deal with loss shapes our capacity to be present to life more than anything else. The way we protect ourselves from loss may be the way in which we distance ourselves from life… We burn out not because we don’t care, but because we don’t grieve.” —Rachel Naomi Remen, MD
Here, Remen’s talking about the ways that some of us use the buttoned-up norms of professionalism to avoid pain, even when engaging that pain might make us more effective at our technical work. Avoidance doesn’t benefit those we serve. It doesn’t serve us any real benefits either.
An alternative to holding the world at bay, reacting without thought, or going numb in shock is the strategy of bringing the center of action inwards. Instead of insisting that “our hands are tied” or that “there’s nothing we can do,” we might explore what does lie within our sphere of action. We might also choose to acknowledge the complex of emotions we might be feeling, and we might take one moment or many to pay attention to others who are acknowledging their own capacity and feelings.
Even if you really are waiting for others to do their work, even if you don’t have the organizational standing to push a task forward, you do still have some inner capacity that may not yet have found an outlet.
As Remen puts it, “Who we are and what we bring within us that strengthens life may have more to do with healing than what we know or what we do.” Who we fundamentally are is the hub of our contributions to the world; what we habitually do is simply a spoke around that hub.
When we bring our center of action inwards, we’re choosing to model being fully present regardless of circumstances and regardless of potential suffering. We’re choosing to be touched by the world yet not buffetted by it. And we’re choosing to act where we can.