Baring witness

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Rachel Naomi Remen is an oncologist, a pioneer in the field of mind-body medicine and the founder of the Commonweal Cancer Help Program in Bolinas, California. She is also a master storyteller and the author of two deeply personal books: Kitchen Table Wisdom and My Grandfather’s Blessings. Both deal with the difference between curing and healing, the strength that abides in vulnerability and the worlds that open up when we dare to offer up our hearts to all that we experience.

In the following fragment, from the chapter “Baring witness” in My Grandfather’s Blessings, she speaks of the limits of our understanding and of our doing, and the boundlessness of our caring.

“Another colleague, a psychologist, told me this story. In the eighties, when she lived and practiced in New York City, she had decided to attend a two-day professional workshop based on twenty or so short films of one of Carl Jung’s last pupils, the great Jungian dream analyst Marie-Louise von Franz. Between the showing of these films, a distinguished panel consisting of the heads of two major Jungian training centers and Carl Jung’s own grandson responded to written questions from the audience sent up to the stage on cards.

One of these cards told the story of a horrific recurring dream, in which the dreamer was stripped of all human dignity and worth through Nazi atrocities. A member of the panel read the dream out loud. As she listened, my colleague began to formulate a dream interpretation in her head, in anticipation of the panel’s response. It was really a “no brainer”, she thought, as her mind busily offered her symbolic explanations for the torture and atrocities described in the dream. But this was not how the panel responded at all. When the reading of the dream was complete, Jung’s grandson looked out over the large audience. “Would you all please rise?” he asked. “We will stand together in a moment of silence in response to this dream.” The audience stood for a minute, my colleague impatiently waiting for the discussion she was certain would follow. But when they sat again, the panel went on to the next question.

My colleague simply did not understand this at all, and a few days later she asked one of her teachers, himself a Jungian analyst, about it. “Ah, Lois,” he had said, “there is in life a suffering so unspeakable, a vulnerability so extreme that it goes far beyond words, beyond explanations and even beyond healing. In the face of such suffering all we can do is bear witness so no one need suffer alone.”

Perhaps a willingness to face such shared vulnerability gives us the capacity to repair the world. Those who find courage to share a common humanity may find they can bless anyone, anywhere.”

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