Review of "The Will to Live and Other Mysteries"

By Rachel Naomi Remen
Sounds True, 2001
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Apr 7th 2002
The Will to Live and Other Mysteries

Rachel Naomi Remen argues in this audiotape that we should cultivate our sense of Mystery because this will strengthen and deepen our lives.  She gives several examples to show how our modern culture is intolerant of mystery, especially in mainstream medicine.  She explains that mystery can be stressful if we are too strongly committed to the ideals of medical science.  Yet there are many phenomena that science is at a loss to explain.  Remen discusses something she saw as a girl, walking with a friend on the streets of New York: a blade of two blades of grass growing up through a block of cement – not through a crack in the cement, but through the hard cement itself.  She cites this as an example of the will to live.  Science, she suggests, takes too narrow a view, and remains blind to surprising possibilities.  Another example she links to this is her experience of being diagnosed with Crones disease when she was a teenager: she was told by doctors that she would have many major surgeries on her intestines and she would be dead by the age of 40.   But she is still alive today, over 47 years after hearing their predictions.  She explains how much difference it would have made to her if just one doctor had suggested that she should retain hope and she should not lose sight of the possibility that she could live a full and happy life. 

            Remen’s message concerning the limitations of modern medicine is similar to that of Andrew Weil, but her style in this audio presentation is rather different from Weil’s.  She is softly spoken and speaks often of her own experience of illness and mystery.  Her emphasis on mystery is also different from Weil’s; while he discusses the power of alternative medicine and the empirical proof available for the effectiveness of ways of healing that western medicine is reluctant to recognize, Remen is more interested on the power of uncertainty.  She discusses prayer and the afterlife; her view is that not that she has any proof of the existence of supernatural powers or life after death, but rather that these are mysteries, and it may be helpful to us to remain open to them.  A sense of curiosity and wonder should complement our scientific approaches to illness, and she wishes that medicine could reclaim its sense of mystery that it once had.

            The will to live may help people recover from serious illnesses such as cancer, diabetes, or Crones disease, but her message is certainly not that we should forego conventional treatments and resort to mysticism.  Remen is a professor at the University of California, San Francisco, and she believes that conventional treatments such as chemotherapy for cancer can be give us life, and she is not recommending that we turn away from such treatments.  Rather, her suggestion is that, even for those whose diseases are truly incurable, the will to live can transform our lives in subtle ways, and it can give us a feeling of peace and well-being. 

            Of course, Remen gives no proofs of her claims; that would be the counter to her embracing of mystery. The strongest part of her approach is in her criticisms of the arrogance and certainty of conventional medicine, which loses sight of the life of the patient.  But she makes a strong case for mystery too, and her voice is warm and wise.  Even for someone such as myself, a firm believer in the power of science and a skeptic about ideas such as the soul and life-force, Remen’s approach is very appealing, very different from other new age wooly thinking.  These two tapes are unexpectedly moving, and are certainly worth hearing. 



·          Commonweal's Institute for the Study of Health and Illness



© 2002 Christian Perring. First Serial Rights.

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is editor of Metapsychology Online Review. His main research is on philosophical issues in psychiatry. He is especially interested in exploring how philosophers can play a greater role in public life, and he is keen to help foster communication between philosophers, mental health professionals, and the general public.


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