- The Washington Times - Monday, July 3, 2000

As a child, Dr. Rachel Remen spent many hours learning life's lessons from her grandfather, a rabbi specializing in the Kabbala, the Jewish mystical tradition. She used his wisdom to guide her through her own struggle with Crohn's disease and to help her patients find new meaning in life, which she shares in her new book, "My Grandfather's Blessings: Stories of Strength, Refuge, and Belonging."

Dr. Remen is also the co-founder and medical director of the Commonweal Cancer Help Program in Bolinas, Calif., and a professor at the School of Medicine at the University of California in San Francisco. The following are excerpts from a recent interview with Teresa Joerger of The Washington Times.

Q: What do strength, refuge and belonging mean to you?

A: Strength is what our real power is. We tend to put real power on things like possessions, money or expertise in this culture, but I think real power lies in the heart.

Refuge is often misinterpreted. It's seen as a hiding place. A place of refuge is where you can remember who you are and what your strength is. It's a place of safety because it is where you can come back to yourself.

Belonging is what we are all unconsciously seeking in this culture. One of this culture's great wounds is that we no longer feel that we belong to each other.

Q: Service also is a theme of your book. How do you define it? A: Service has many toxic meanings, and there are many beliefs about it that aren't true. We all affect life, and we all serve each other. We all are connected to each other. We've all made a far greater contribution than we realize, and often, in a very small way, we can have a very big effect on someone else's life, and we don't even know it.

If you look at the myths of service service is duty, obligation and self-sacrifice according to my grandfather and also the Kabbalah, service is much closer to love than it is to duty, closer to generosity than it is to obligation. It's what can fill up the emptiness that often accumulates in the heart of people's lives. We try to serve in a very self-sacrificial way, and we try to serve on empty, but according to Kabbalah, this is not service. Real service is when you fill yourself up first with life's blessings and then you overflow.

Q: What was your grandfather's most important lesson to you?

A: My grandfather was a bless-ing in and of himself. He blessed me, and that has such power that 55 years after I last heard his voice, he is sitting in this room. It is possible to be a blessing. We underestimate ourselves. We tell ourselves that we don't have what it takes. That's not true.

If you had asked me about my grandfather before either book was written, I would have said to you, 'Oh, my grandfather has great stories.' I would not have realized his influence on me. As a 60-year-old woman reviewing the stories he told me, it is so easy to see what he was doing. I think he felt there were certain things that were so important that I would need them because life is difficult and that he could tell them to me in the form of stories so I would remember them.

Q: How can someone touch the life of others?

A: We touch the lives of others through who we are. Often we don't even know we've done it. We have no idea who's listening and who's responding. Everything we are serves, everything we know serves. I've served others impeccably with parts of myself that I'm ashamed of. Our wounds serve. They are the places we learn compassion, where we learn to trust the process of healing. I have seen people use anything to bless life with. The most powerful forms of service come not from what we say or do, but who we are.

Q: You say in the book that everything has its blessing. How can we recognize life's blessings?

A: We often don't recognize what a blessing looks like. Sometimes it looks different, like a loss or an illness. Anything that grows us in wisdom and enables us to love better is a blessing. A lot of things get in the way of receiving blessings. Many of us have beautiful homes who we don't inhabit. We have children we don't spend time with. We have beliefs about ourselves that don't allow us to see our blessings.

When I first became ill, I did not see it as a blessing. Forty-seven years later, a lot of what gives my life meaning leads back to my illness. It doesn't make sense. We learn to survive first and then learn to live better.

I work a lot with people who are dying. I'm not afraid of pain, I'm not afraid of death, I'm not afraid of suffering. I don't run away. I just am present for this in their lives the way I've been present for it in my life for 47 years. That's one of the great things I bring my patients. I don't think I could have learned it in the way I did without the experience of illness.

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