Dr. Sherwin Nuland died this week at the age of 83. He became well-known for his first book, How We Die, which won the National Book Award in 1994. For him, pondering death was a way of wondering at life — and the infinite variety of processes that maintain human life moment to moment. He reflects on the meaning of life by way of scrupulous and elegant detail about human physiology:
“Wonder is something I share with people of deep faith. They wonder at the universe that God has created, and I wonder at the universe that nature has created. This is a sense of awe that motivates the faithful, motivates me. And when I say motivates, it provides an energy for seeking. Just as the faithful will always say, ‘We are seeking,’ I am seeking.”
We remixed this interview and present it in his honor.
The silence was broken at last by the little bell which signified the end of the morning activity. Taking hold of the basket again, I prepared to leave. But I was only fourteen and curiosity overcame me. Turning to the old woman, I asked, ‘What are you looking at?’ … Slowly she turned to me and I could see her face for the first time. It was radiant. In a voice filled with joy she said, ‘Why child, I am looking at the Light.’
Many years later as a pediatrician, I would watch newborns look at the light with that same rapt expression, almost as if they were listening for something.
…A ninety-six-year old woman may stop speaking because arteriosclerosis has damaged her brain, or she has become psychotic and she is no longer able to speak. But she may also have withdrawn into a space between the worlds, to contemplate what is next, to spread her sails and patiently wait to catch the light.
~Rachel Naomi Remen, from Kitchen Table Wisdom
Remembering this little glimmer of grace every time the sun peeks through this hazy shade of Minnesota winter. Her unedited conversation with Krista Tippett is marvelous. Listen generously.
It’s difficult not to view these photos from The National Post and stand in awe of the possibilities of medicine and science:
‘Tears of joy’ for faceless man after first kiss from daughter following transplant
A year after receiving a full face transplant — the first of its kind in the U.S. — faceless man Dallas Wiens can feel a kiss from his daughter, revealing the sensation makes him “cry tears of joy.” (Photos: Courtesy of Lightchaser Photography/Reuters)
~reblogged by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
A Heightened Potential for Creativity Even While Our Brains Slow Down
by Krista Tippett, host
Few features of humanity are more fascinating than creativity; and few fields right now are more fascinating than neuroscience. Rex Jung puts the two together.
He spends half of his time working with people living with brain illness or injury. In this role, he says, he’s something like an “existential neuropsychologist.” And what he learns there informs the other half of his working life, in the laboratory applying the newest technologies of brain imaging to the interplay between creativity, intelligence, and personality.
What I like about this interview is the humanity Rex Jung brings to his science. This is a quality of all the scientists we bring on this program, I suppose — whether it’s James Gates on supersymmetry, Jean Berko Gleason on linguistics, or Mario Livio on astrophysics. I’m fascinated by the richness of this exchange between humanity and science when you simply shine a light on it. Rex Jung, for example, got interested in studying brains as a volunteer for the Special Olympics. He came to love and revere the participants with supposedly “imperfect” brains.
Rex Jung first made a mark in the field of deciphering the brain networks involved in intelligence. But he was always aware that there is something more than intelligence involved in lives of beauty and integrity and vigor.
Now he’s working on the emerging frontier of the study of creativity — and how it is different from, as well as related to, intelligence. He and his colleagues have notably helped identify a phenomenon they’ve called “transient hypofrontality.” That’s a daunting name for an experience many of us will recognize. Simply put, Rex Jung says that intelligence works like a “superhighway,” with massive numbers of connections being made between the different parts of the brain with speed and directness. When we become more creative, our powerful, organizing frontal lobes downregulate a bit. The creative brain is a “meandering" brain. The superhighways give way to "side roads and dirt roads," making possible the new and unexpected connections we associate with artistry, discovery, and humor.
One of the most helpful things about this conversation is the commonsense way Rex Jung describes the implications of his research. He says to take those famous stories we have of moments of great creative discovery — like Archimedes wallowing in his bath when he had his eureka moment — and be attentive to how we all prime our brains to be less directed, more creative. Some of us take a bath, some take a walk, some take a drink.
This cutting-edge research is a resounding affirmation of something we know we need in the 21st century but struggle to create: downtime. It’s a call to make this possible for our children too. Again, I think we all know this. For science to demonstrate it as a necessary precondition for creativity is bracing and helpful.
I appreciate the way this research validates the creativity of the everyday: of humor, of relationships, of social as well as personal, scientific, or artistic innovation. Rex Jung is also part of an emerging discipline called “positive neuroscience” — studying what the brain does well and, by implication I think, how what we are learning about our brains can be of benefit to our common life. He even believes that while there is loss in an aging brain — the phase many of our baby boomer brains have now entered — there is also a potential for heightened creativity in that very slowing down.
There are intriguing echoes between this research and neuroscientist Richard Davidson’s discoveries at the University of Wisconsin about how it is possible through behaviors — and with practice — to keep changing our brains across the lifespan. After listening to Rex Jung, I’ve become more aware of how I sometimes get myself into agonizing moments, when I need to be creative (on deadline, of course) but haven’t made the space for my frontal lobes to downregulate and let it happen.
I like feeling more in touch with my frontal lobes. I also like the way Rex Jung questions whether there is a necessary connection between creativity and difficult personalities (e.g. Steve Jobs). From my vantage point, I also feel we may be on the cusp of realizing new creative potentials in ourselves — again, in the everyday. I’ll let my brain meander here awhile to consider that. Talk about having your cake and eating it too; I get to delight in the purposefulness of meandering.
Health is not a commodity. Risk factors are not disease. Aging is not an illness. To fix a problem is easy, to sit with another suffering is hard. Doing all we can is not the same as doing what we should. Quality is more than metrics. Patients cannot see outside their pain, we cannot see in, relationship is the only bridge between. Time is precious; we spend it on what we value. The most common condition we treat is unhappiness. And the greatest obstacle to treating a patient’s unhappiness is our own. Nothing is more patient-centered than the process of change. Doctors expect too much from data and not enough from conversation. Community is a locus of healing, not the hospital or the clinic. The foundation of medicine is friendship, conversation and hope.
Live Video: In the Room with Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
when: Thursday, February 10th, 2011
time: 2-2:30 pm CST
where: Being LIVE
Izzeldin Abuelaish, the Palestinian doctor who first came to our attention when shells hit his home in the Gaza Strip and killed his three daughters and niece, will sit down with Kate Moos, executive producer of On Being, for a one-on-one interview about his experiences growing up in a refugee camp and his hopes for a new road to peace.
A Fanciful Idea Made Practical
by Krista Tippett, host
"Listening Generously" is one of my favorite shows. As is often the case, I hear Rachel Naomi Remen differently with the passage of time. I’m also struck right now by the title we gave this conversation with her — “Listening Generously.” The longer I do this work, the more aware I am of listening as a discipline and vocation — and something I do with and for all of you. This is a great privilege, and a gift.
And listening to Rachel Naomi Remen is nourishing. She is not a religious figure per se, rather a kind of quiet modern-day mystic. Her wisdom is somewhat countercultural. Living well, she says, is not about eradicating our losses, wounds, and weaknesses. It is about understanding how they continually complete our identity and equip us to help others. As a doctor, she’s seen time and again how even deep pathologies and failures become the source of unsuspected strengths. She believes that however difficult our lives become or how fraught our choices, most of us never lose our capacity to be whole human beings. We may forget that potential in ourselves, yet it can reappear full-blown in times of crisis. The hope that her stories engender is itself a healing experience.
I’ve been ever after changed by her telling of a formative story of hope. On her fourth birthday, her grandfather, an Orthodox rabbi and a student of the Jewish mystical tradition of Kabbalah, taught her about “the birthday of the world,” as he called it: In the beginning, the world was made of light. But by some accident, the light was scattered, and it lodged as countless sparks inside every aspect of creation. The highest human calling is to look for this original light from where we sit, to point to it and gather it up and in so doing to repair the world, tikkun olam.
This might sound like an idealistic and fanciful idea. But Rachel Naomi Remen calls it an important and empowering image. It insists that each one of us, flawed and inadequate as we may feel, has exactly what’s needed to help repair the part of the world that we can see and touch. This story is a practical tool — the kind of practical tool religious traditions carry forward in time — for a world longing to address images of suffering that can otherwise overwhelm us.
The following passage from Rachel Naomi Remen’s Kitchen Table Wisdom was written with physicians in mind. But it holds a resonant caution and challenge for all of us, I think, as we struggle to face yet not be overwhelmed or numbed by the pain and suffering that are a fact of human existence near and far.
"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. We burn out because we’ve allowed our hearts to become so filled with loss that we have no room left to care."
I wish you glorious days of summer, and a renewed capacity to care.
In the Room, with Doris Taylor
Trent Gilliss, online editor
Unfortunately, one of Krista’s recent interviews wasn’t available for viewing by the time "Stem Cells, Untold Stories" was available for download and broadcast. I say unfortunate because it’s a rare opportunity when Krista is able to interview a guest in our home studios at Minnesota Public Radio — and we’re able to film it and then make it accessible.
After tweaking our encoding specification so that it would properly upload to our video vendor, it’s finally available and wanted to make you aware of it. For those of you who struggle with the limits and the priorities of stem cell research and its outcomes, I highly recommend watching Dr. Taylor talk about her own research and ethical understanding. If nothing else, you’re able to see the passion she conveys when she talks about human physiology and the body’s ability to regenerate and adapt.
Stories from Google Alert: Kaye in Lesotho
Trent Gilliss, online editor
A few days ago, a “Speaking of Faith” Google alert highlighted Kaye Thompson’s blog entry about her first year in Lesotho, Africa. Her reflections on serving in the Peace Corps is refreshing, honest, and vulnerable. I appreciate that. And, I found her description of cooperation among medical professionals and local healers hopeful and inspiring:
I helped my clinic sponsor a day- long meeting between the traditional healers of the area (35 came) and the clinic staff. Because the head of the clinic is a wise and open-minded nurse, she stayed out of any judgment towards the healers and honest sharing was encouraged. The healers come from a variety of traditions to include intuitive healers, those that speak with the ancestors, those that have apprenticeships with other healers, and those that go to a program to receive more formalized training. They work with dreams, herbs, spirits and prayers. Unfortunately some of the practices are harmful and impede healing with Western medecines. The healers spoke of their feelings of being marginalized by the medical community, their belief that they can cure AIDS, their wish to be able to work more collaboratively with the clinic, and an overall sense of relief that these two communities were finally in dialogue. It was a huge success with hopes for a repeat in the future.
Repossessing Virtue: Rachel Naomi Remen and Economic Crisis as Spiritual Journey
» download(mp3, 23:20)
Kate Moos, Managing Producer
Rachel Naomi Remen spoke to Krista for a program we called "Listening Generously" some time ago and re-aired recently. In it they discuss the power of story to heal and restore, as well as the power of story, or narrative, to limit and to harm. So I wasn’t surprised when, in the course of this brief interview with me, she said "our story had become too small," and asserted that finding our way back to the largeness of our collective story was part of the spiritual path we are on, as we navigate the economic crisis.
I hardly edited this conversation at all because I was so taken by Dr. Remen’s hospitality and warmth, and I wanted to share that with you. I hope you’ll let yourself sink into her wisdom on the spiritual aspects of our shared anxieties and ask yourself, as she suggests: What do I trust? What do I really need?
We’ll keep releasing mp3s of our interviews via this blog, our podcast, and now on a Web site for Repossessing Virtue. And, please share your ideas about how this downturn has affected you in terms of personal conscience and values?