My Grandfather's Blessings: Stories of Strength, Refuge, and Belonging [NOOK Book]


In My Grandfather's Blessings, Rachel Naomi Remen, a cancer physician and master storyteller, uses her luminous stories to remind us of the power of our kindness and the joy of being alive.

Dr. Remen's grandfather, an orthodox rabbi and scholar of the Kabbalah, saw life as a web of connection and knew that everyone belonged to him, and that he belonged to everyone. He taught her that blessing one another is what fills our emptiness, heals our ...

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My Grandfather's Blessings: Stories of Strength, Refuge, and Belonging

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In My Grandfather's Blessings, Rachel Naomi Remen, a cancer physician and master storyteller, uses her luminous stories to remind us of the power of our kindness and the joy of being alive.

Dr. Remen's grandfather, an orthodox rabbi and scholar of the Kabbalah, saw life as a web of connection and knew that everyone belonged to him, and that he belonged to everyone. He taught her that blessing one another is what fills our emptiness, heals our loneliness, and connects us more deeply to life.

Life has given us many more blessings than we have allowed ourselves to receive. My Grandfather's Blessings is about how we can recognize and receive our blessings and bless the life in others. Serving others heals us. Through our service we will discover our own wholeness&#151and the way to restore hidden wholeness in the world.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Our Review
From Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen, the author of Kitchen Table Wisdom, a collection of moving and inspirational stories about the human spirit, comes more writings that examine the heart, mind, and soul at work. My Grandfather's Blessings is a collection of thoughts, anecdotes, parables, and prayers that Remen has gathered to help those who are facing the crisis of illness, whether in themselves or someone they care about. Such a crisis is often a wake-up call, a push that forces us to reevaluate our lives, our priorities, and our values. It can be a painful and arduous journey, but the homilies in My Grandfather's Blessings will no doubt provide a cushion for many as they navigate those bumps in the road.

As the title implies, My Grandfather's Blessings includes some of the sage advice and bits of wisdom that Remen's grandfather, a Cabalistic rabbi, shared with her. But there are other voices that speak out here as well -- patients, physicians, friends, family, and Remen herself -- each voice unique though united in the common goal of honoring and respecting life and learning to appreciate the many blessings -- both small and large -- we all receive. The collective whole is an inspirational and compassionate glimpse at the incredible fortitude and indomitable nature of the human spirit.

As a counselor to those with chronic, critical, or terminal diseases, as well as to the medical practitioners who treat them, Remen has explored many aspects of the impact of illness. A physician herself, she is also the survivor of a painful and debilitating disease she has had for nearly half a century. As such, she has viewed illness and its effects from both sides of the fence, a position that lends her words a credibility and balance others in her field may lack. This is not a book of medical advice, at least not in the standard sense, though healing is certainly a goal. But Remen's brand of healing is not the physical kind (though that occasionally occurs as an intriguing and serendipitous side effect), it's more a healing of the spirit and soul. The book is not about saving lives so much as it is about celebrating them. It's not a book about dying, it's a book about living.

Remen talks about such matters as the power of forgiveness and the courage of vulnerability. These may seem like lofty subjects until you read the powerfully simple stories of the people Remen has known and how they accomplished these goals. Some of these stories are sad yet inspiring, some are touching and funny. Others, such as Remen's anecdote about how she learned to become an expert in drawing blood, demonstrate the inherent power of humility. There are stories from patients and doctors, from children and from adults. Each one is a gift that demonstrates lives transformed and the ability we all possess to take charge of our lives and find the courage to share our common humanity.

There are lessons here, such as Remen's story about her mother's silk stockings -- several pairs in a rainbow of colors, stashed away in a drawer in their original packaging, never worn because they were too valuable and her mother thought they should be saved for a special occasion. Although the outcome to this tale may be predictable, it's nonetheless a touching story and drives home an important concept. As do all the other tales. There are stories of healing through imagery and meditation. There are stories of incredible courage in the face of overwhelming odds. There are stories of suffering and the myriad ways people deal with it. In fact, finding refuge from suffering is one of Remen's recurring themes throughout the book. Many of her stories and lessons are geared toward helping people in crisis recognize and avoid behaviors such as denial and rationalization, which may temporarily ease suffering but provide no long-term relief.

The stories are compelling enough to make one want to read the whole thing in one sitting, but My Grandfather's Blessings is one of those books best experienced in small bites in order to savor each tidbit and relish the flavor of the underlying theme or concept. It makes for a series of snacks, but in the end, there is much sustenance to be found. The cumulative effect is like a multicourse gourmet meal that provides a high level of satiety and nourishment for the soul.

--Beth Amos

Library Journal
As a child, Remen spent a good deal of time with her grandfather, a Kaballah scholar and orthodox rabbi. She loved their ritual of drinking hot tea and talking. My Grandfather's Blessings is both a homage to a loving grandparent and a gentle reminder to be kind. Remen's grandfather believed that all humans are connected. He taught his granddaughter that each of us is blessed by kindness and the joy of being alive. He believed that the purpose of humanity was and is to share our blessings with others. The author seemingly absorbed all of her grandfather's teachings and has used them to benefit her patients and community in her medical practice. She has been counseling patients with chronic and terminal illnesses for over 20 years and is currently a clinical professor of family and community medicine at the University of California at the San Francisco School of Medicine. Recommended for all libraries with large medical and self-help collections.--Pam Kingsbury, Florence, AL Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Phil Catalfo
The best-selling author of Kitchen Table Wisdom (and medical director of the Commonweal Cancer Help Program) returns with an even more engaging collection of anecdotal essays to engender in the reader that rarest of feelings: that one is blessed.
Yoga Journal
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781101655221
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 4/1/2001
  • Sold by: Penguin Group
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 400
  • Sales rank: 151,992
  • File size: 702 KB

Meet the Author

Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D. has been counseling those with chronic and terminal illness for more than twenty years. She is cofounder and medical director of the Commonweal Cancer Help Program in Bolinas, California, and is currently clinical professor of family and community medicine at the University of California at San Francisco School of Medicine.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Most of us have been given many more blessings than we have received. We do not take time to be blessed or make the space for it. We may have filled our lives so full of other things that we have no room to receive our blessings. One of my patients once told me that she has an image of us all being circled by our blessings, sometimes for years, like airplanes in a holding pattern at an airport, stacked up with no place to land. Waiting for a moment of our time, our attention.

    People with serious illness have often let go of a great deal; their illness has created an opening in their lives for the first time. They may discover ways to receive all the blessings they are given, even those that were given long ago. Such people have shown me how to receive my blessings.

    Many years ago I cared for a woman called Mae Thomas. Mae had grown up in Georgia and while she had lived in Oakland, California, for many years, she had in some profound way never left the holy ground of her childhood. She had worked hard all her life, cleaning houses in order to raise seven children and more than a few grandchildren. By the time I met her, she had grown old and was riddled with cancer.

    Mae celebrated life. Her laugh was a pure joy. It made you remember how to laugh yourself. All these years later, just thinking of her makes me smile. As she became sicker, I began to call her every few days to check in on her. She would always answer the phone in the same way. I would say "Mae, how ya doin'?" and she would chuckle and reply, "I'm blessed, Sister. I am blessed."

    The night before she died, I called, and her family had brought the phone to her. "Mae," I said. "It's Rachel." I could hear her coughing and clearing her throat, looking to find breath enough to speak in a lung filled with cancer, willing herself past a fog of morphine to connect to my voice. Tears stung my eyes. "Mae," I said. "It's Rachel. How ya doin'?" There was a sound I could not identify, which slowly unwrapped itself into a deep chuckle. "I'm blessed, Rachel. I am blessed," she told me. Mae was one of those people. And so, perhaps, are we all.

    Martin Buber reminds us that just to live is holy. Just to be is a blessing. If Buber is right, what keeps us from receiving life's blessings? It is not always so simple a thing as a lack of time. Often we may not recognize a blessing when it is given, or we may have ideas about life that keep us from experiencing what we already have. Sometimes we become frozen in the past or unaware of the potential in the present. We may even come to feel entitled to what has been given us by grace. Or we may become so caught up in what is missing in the world that we allow our hearts to break. There are many ways to feel empty in the midst of our blessings.

    We can bless others only when we feel blessed ourselves. Blessing life may be more about learning how to celebrate life than learning how to fix life. It may require an appreciation of life as it is and an acceptance of much in life that we cannot understand. It may mean developing an eye for joy. It is not necessary to sit in judgment in order to move things forward, and our anger may not be the most potent tool for change. Most important, it requires the humility to know that we are not in this task of restoring the world alone.

Larry knew none of these things. He and his wife had been coming to see me as a couple for a few months. His wife came to their final appointment alone. "Where is Larry?" I asked her. "He got a call from Washington," she told me. "He was still on the phone when I left." "But didn't he promise to take Wednesdays off?" I asked. She looked at me and just smiled. "I'm leaving," she told me. "I thought if I could get him here, he might focus on me and the kids long enough for me to tell him."

    My heart sank. I had met Larry ten years before when he was first diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma. He was twenty-nine at the time, a young stockbroker with a promising future. Two words from a doctor had taken all that away. Larry and his wife had fought back. Deeply in love, they had supported each other through a year of brutal chemotherapy. Their children were small, and there was much to live for. But eight months after his chemotherapy was complete, the cancer returned. This time Larry had a bone marrow transplant. Back then one out of two people who underwent this procedure died. Larry took this chance because he loved life fiercely. And he was one of the lucky ones.

    He emerged from this treatment a changed man. "There is more to life than making money," he had told me back then. Convinced that his life had been spared for a reason, he felt he had to use his time to make a difference. He left the world of business and began working in the new field of conservation.

    Over the next ten years, conservation became a nationwide movement, and Larry became a man possessed. He began working a fifty-hour week. And then a sixty-hour week. Now he traveled almost constantly and, when he was at home, worked far into the night by fax and e-mail. He ate and slept irregularly. Months went by without his having a talk with his children, an evening with his wife, or any time for himself. He lived on the edge of burnout. But there was always something more to be done, another project, another cause. His wife and children had been lonely at first, but gradually they had built a life without him.

    "Tell him that I would like to see him," I told his wife.

    She nodded. "I'll tell him after I give him the news," she said.

    Larry came in a few days later. He sat down wearily in the chair opposite. I was shocked at his appearance. "Carol said you wanted to talk with me."

    "Yes," I said. "She told me she was leaving."

    "Yes," he replied. "She told me, too."

    He began to cry. "Ten years ago, I was losing my life," he told me. "I didn't lose it then, but I've lost it now."

    "What was it like for you back then?" I asked him.

    "Desperate," he said. "Life was slipping through my fingers. I felt that I was running out of time." He paused. "I still feel that way," he told me. "The world is dying. We may not have another chance."

    We sat looking at each other in silence. My heart ached for this good man. "When was the last time that you ate with your family?" I asked him.

    He shook his head. "I don't remember."

    "Or the last time you went to sleep without setting an alarm clock?" He shook his head again. "Do you remember the last time that you played a game or read a story to your children?"

    "I don't remember," he said softly.

    "Larry, would you treat a spotted owl in this way?" He looked down at the floor and shook his head. I saw that he had begun to cry again.

    "I don't think I can go on," he said.

    I told him that I understood how important his work was. Silently he nodded. "Has serving life made you happy?"

    He looked at me, confused. "How can serving life make you happy?" he asked me. "Service requires sacrifice."

    But perhaps not. One of the fundamental principles of real service is taught many times a day aboard every airplane in the United States. Larry, who flies more than a million miles every year, had heard it hundreds of times without recognizing its relevance to him. It is the part just before takeoff when the stewardess says, "If the cabin loses pressure, the oxygen masks will fall from above. Put your own mask on first before you try to help the person next to you." Service is based on the premise that all life is worthy of our support and commitment. For Larry, this was true of every life except his own.

    If I wished to defeat those who wanted to use their lives to make a difference, this is exactly the way in which I would go about it. Few such people would be tempted from their purpose by fame, or power, or even by wealth. But I could confuse them and stop them in just the same way Larry found himself stopped. I could use their own dedication against them, driving them to work until they became so depleted and empty that they could no longer go on. I would make certain that they never discovered that blessing life is about filling yourself up so that your blessings overflow onto others.


On Friday afternoons when I would arrive at my grandfather's house after school, the tea would already be set on the kitchen table. My grandfather had his own way of serving tea. There were no teacups and saucers or bowls of granulated sugar or honey. Instead, he would pour the tea directly from the silver samovar into a drinking glass. There had to be a teaspoon in the glass first, otherwise the glass, being thin, might break.

    My grandfather did not drink his tea in the same way that the parents of my friends did either. He would put a cube of sugar between his teeth and then drink the hot tea straight from his glass. So would I. I much preferred drinking tea this way to the way I had to drink tea at home.

    After we had finished our tea my grandfather would set two candles on the table and light them. Then he would have a word with God in Hebrew. Sometimes he would speak out loud, but often he would close his eyes and be quiet. I knew then that he was talking to God in his heart. I would sit and wait patiently because the best part of the week was coming.

    When Grandpa finished talking to God, he would turn to me and say, "Come, Neshume-le." Then I would stand in front of him and he would rest his hands lightly on the top of my head. He would begin by thanking God for me and for making him my grandpa. He would specifically mention my struggles during that week and tell God something about me that was true. Each week I would wait to find out what that was. If I had made mistakes during the week, he would mention my honesty in telling the truth. If I had failed, he would appreciate how hard I had tried. If I had taken even a short nap without my nightlight, he would celebrate my bravery in sleeping in the dark. Then he would give me his blessing and ask the long-ago women I knew from his many stories—Sarah, Rachel, Rebekah, and Leah—to watch over me.

    These few moments were the only time in my week when I felt completely safe and at rest. My family of physicians and health professionals were always struggling to learn more and to be more. It seemed there was always more to know. It was never enough. If I brought home a 98 on a test from school, my father would ask, "And what happened to the other two points?" I pursued those two points relentlessly throughout my childhood. But my grandfather did not care about such things. For him, I was already enough. And somehow when I was with him, I knew with absolute certainty that this was so.

    My grandfather died when I was seven years old. I had never lived in a world without him in it before, and it was hard for me. He had looked at me as no one else had and called me by a special name, "Neshume-le," which means "beloved little soul." There was no one left to call me this anymore. At first I was afraid that without him to see me and tell God who I was, I might disappear. But slowly over time I came to understand that in some mysterious way, I had learned to see myself through his eyes. And that once blessed, we are blessed forever.

    Many years later when, in her extreme old age, my mother surprisingly began to light candles and talk to God herself, I told her about these blessings and what they had meant to me. She had smiled at me sadly. "I have blessed you every day of your life, Rachel," she told me. "I just never had the wisdom to do it out loud."

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Table of Contents

Introduction 1
I. Receiving Your Blessings
Blessing 22
Wrestling with the Angel 25
The Shell Game 28
The Spice of Life 31
Lot's Wife 36
Having What You have 39
Letting Go 41
Owning 43
Keeping It Together 46
At the End of the Day 50
Remembering 53
Getting Real 56
What Matters 63
Teachers Everywhere 66
You Have to Be Present to Win 68
Knowing the Heart 70
Counting Your Chickens 74
I'Chiam! 77
II. Becoming a Blessing
Getting It Right 86
The Gift 88
Being Used 90
Seeing the Buddha Seed 93
Simply Natural 96
All in the Family 99
Transmission 101
Bearing Witness 103
The Trajectory 106
Holding On to the Heart 109
Lost and Found 112
Finding New Eyes 116
Strengthening Life 120
The Friend 124
Wisdom 127
III. Finding Strength, Taking Refuge
The Meeting Place 137
Pearls of Wisdom 139
The Way Through 141
Right Protection 144
From the Heart 146
Wholeness 150
The Link 152
Getting Clear 155
Being Fed 158
When Somebody Knows 161
A Place of Refuge 164
Coming Home 166
In the Gray Zone 168
Finding the Center 170
In the Beginning 175
Call Home 177
Broken 181
Promises, Promises 188
IV. The Web of Blessings
Belonging 197
Lifeline 201
Learning to Serve 205
We Are Enough 209
Finding the Connection 214
Breathing In and Breathing Out 216
The Gift of Service 218
Fellow Travelers 222
The Laying On of Hands 225
Choosing Your Battles 229
Heaven and Hell 232
The Wise Man 234
How the World Is Made 237
One Little Candle 239
Greater Than the Sum of Its Parts 242
V. Befriending Life
The Game 251
Knowing Life 253
Loving Life 256
Eggs 258
Finding the Way 260
When It Works 263
Habit 267
The Gift of New Eyes 269
Making a Difference 272
The Bottom Line 276
Crazy Clean 279
Integrity 281
The Path 288
A Matter of Life and Death 290
The Mirror 293
Who Serves? 297
Beyond the American Way 300
The Emperor's New Clothes 303
Forgiveness 306
The Gift of the Magi 310
Completion 314
Celebration 317
VI. Restoring the World
Lineage 329
Beyond Words 331
The Final Patient 333
Mystery 337
A Question of Style 339
On the Cutting Edge 343
Mary 346
After Dark 349
The Thirty-six 352
Finding Safety 356
The Way It Is 359
The Presence of God 363
The Friction in the System 365
The Reward 368
The Real Story 370
Epilogue 375
Acknowledgments 377
Permissions 381
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From Introduction

Often, when he came to visit, my grandfather would bring me a present. These were never the sorts of things that other people brought, dolls and books and stuffed animals. My dolls and stuffed animals have been gone for more than half a century, but many of my grandfather's gifts are with me still.

Once he brought me a little paper cup. I looked inside it expecting something special. It was full of dirt. I was not allowed to play with dirt. Disappointed, I told him this. He smiled at me fondly. Turning, he picked up the little teapot from my dolls' tea set and took me to the kitchen where he filled it with water. Back in the nursery, he put the little cup on the windowsill and handed me the teapot. "If you promise to put some water in the cup every day, something may happen," he told me.

At the time, I was four years old and my nursery was on the sixth floor of an apartment building in Manhattan. This whole thing made no sense to me at all. I looked at him dubiously. He nodded with encouragement. "Every day, Neshume-le," he told me.

And so I promised. At first, curious to see what would happen, I did not mind doing this. But as the days went by and nothing changed, it got harder and harder to remember to put water in the cup. After a week, I asked my grandfather if it was time to stop yet. Shaking his head no, he said, "Every day, Neshume-le." The second week was even harder, and I became resentful of my promise to put water in the cup. When my grandfather came again, I tried to give it back to him but he refused to take it, saying simply, "Every day, Neshume-le." By the third week, I began to forget to put water in the cup. Often I would remember only after I had been put to bed and would have to get out of bed and water it in the dark. But I did not miss a single day. And one morning, there were two little green leaves that had not been there the night before.

I was completely astonished. Day by day they got bigger. I could not wait to tell my grandfather, certain that he would be as surprised as I was. But of course he was not. Carefully he explained to me that life is everywhere, hidden in the most ordinary and unlikely places. I was delighted. "And all it needs is water, Grandpa?" I asked him. Gently he touched me on the top of my head. "No, Neshume-le," he said. "All it needs is your faithfulness."

This was perhaps my first lesson in the power of service, but I did not understand it in this way then. My grandfather would not have used these words. He would have said that we need to remember to bless the life around us and the life within us. He would have said when we remember we can bless life, we can repair the world.

My grandfather was a scholar of the Kabbalah, the mystical teachings of Judaism. My parents and my aunts and uncles took a dim view of this study, some seeing it as an embarrassment, a paternal idiosyncrasy, and others as something highly suspect, a sort of dabbling in magic. When he died, the old handwritten leather-covered books he had studied daily simply disappeared. I never discovered what had happened to them.

According to the Kabbalah, at some point in the beginning of things, the Holy was broken up into countless sparks, which were scattered throughout the universe. There is a god spark in everyone and in everything, a sort of diaspora of goodness. God's immanent presence among us is encountered daily in the most simple, humble, and ordinary ways. The Kabbalah teaches that the Holy may speak to you from its many hidden places at any time. The world may whisper in your ear, or the spark of God in you may whisper in your heart. My grandfather showed me how to listen.

One is encouraged to acknowledge such unexpected meetings with the Holy by saying a blessing. There are hundreds of such blessings, each one attesting to a moment of awakening in which one remembers the holy nature of the world. In such moments heaven and earth meet and greet and recognize one another.

There is a blessing that is said whenever one encounters something new and of significance in one's experience. My mother was present at the moment when I met my grandfather. Soon after I was born, she took him to the hospital to see me for the first time in my incubator. She told me that he had stood regarding me in silence through the viewing room window for a long time. I had been very premature. Concerned that he was anxious or even repelled that I was so small and frail, she was about to reassure him when he whispered something under his breath. She had not quite heard and she asked him to repeat it for her. He had turned to her with a smile and said in Hebrew, "Blessed are Thou, O Lord Our God, King of the Universe, who has kept us alive and sustained us, who has brought us whole to this moment." It is a blessing of gratitude for the gift of life, and it was also the beginning of our relationship.

My grandfather was a man of many blessings. These blessings were prescribed generations ago by the great teaching rabbis, and each is considered to be a moment of mindfulness--an acknowledgment that holiness has been met in the midst of ordinary life. Not only are there blessings to be said over food; there are blessings to be said when you wash your hands, when you see the sun rise or set, when something is lost or when it is found, when something begins or ends. Even the humblest of bodily functions has its own blessing. My grandfather was an Orthodox rabbi and he said them all, tipping his black fedora to the Holy many times each day as he dealt with the smallest details of daily life.

I was the child of two dedicated socialists, who viewed all religion as the "opiate of the masses." Although such blessings were never said in my own family, saying them with my grandfather felt quite natural to me. At one time I knew many of them by heart, but I have long since forgotten them. What I have remembered is the importance of blessing life.

When I was young, I seemed to be caught between two very different views of life: my grandfather and his sense of the holy nature of the world and my highly academic, research-oriented uncles, aunts, and cousins. All my grandfather's children were doctors and nurses, and many of their children are as well. As I grew older and time created a greater distance between us, my grandfather seemed to become an island of mysticism in a vast sea of science. Desperate to be successful and make a contribution to society, I gradually put him in the back of my memory with the other things of my childhood. He had died when I was seven. It would be many years before I would make the connection between his ways and the work of medicine. Sometimes if you stay the course long enough, divergent paths reveal themselves to have the same destination. My grandfather blessed life, and his children served life. But, in the end, it has turned out that these may be one and the same thing.

As a young doctor, I thought that serving life was a thing of drama and action and split-second judgment calls. A question of going sleepless and riding in ambulances and outwitting the angel of death. A role open only to those who have prepared themselves for years. Service was larger than ordinary life, and those who served were larger than life also. But I know now that this is only the least part of the nature of service. That service is small and quiet and everywhere. That far more often we serve by who we are and not what we know. And everyone serves whether they know it or not.

We bless the life around us far more than we realize. Many simple, ordinary things that we do can affect those around us in profound ways: the unexpected phone call, the brief touch, the willingness to listen generously, the warm smile or wink of recognition. We can even bless total strangers and be blessed by them. Big messages come in small packages. All it may take to restore someone's trust in life may be returning a lost earring or a dropped glove.

Blessings come in forms as simple as the greeting commonly used in India. On meeting even a total stranger, one bows and says NAMASTE: I see the divine spark within you. Here we are too often fooled by someone's appearance, their age or illness or anger or meanness or just too busy to recognize that there is in everyone a place of goodness and integrity, no matter how deeply buried. We are too hurried or distracted to stop and bear witness to it. When we recognize the spark of God in others, we blow on it with our attention and strengthen it, no matter how deeply it has been buried or for how long. When we bless someone, we touch the unborn goodness in them and wish it well.

Everything unborn in us and in the world needs blessing. My grandfather believed that the Holy has made all things. "It is up to us to strengthen them and feed them and free them whenever possible to find and fulfill His purposes for them, Neshume-le," he told me. Blessings strengthen life and feed life just as water does.

A woman once told me that she did not feel the need to reach out to those around her because she prayed every day. Surely, this was enough. But a prayer is about our relationship to God; a blessing is about our relationship to the spark of God in one another. God may not need our attention as badly as the person next to us on the bus or behind us on line in the supermarket. Everyone in the world matters, and so do their blessings. When we bless others, we offer them refuge from an indifferent world.

The capacity to bless life is in everybody. The power of our blessing is not diminished by illness or age. On the contrary, our blessings become even more powerful as we grow older. They have survived the buffeting of our experience. We may have traveled a long, hard road to the place where we can remember once again who we are. That we have traveled and remembered gives hope to those we bless. Perhaps in time they too can remember this place beyond competition and struggle, this place where we belong to one another.

A blessing is not something that one person gives another. A blessing is a moment of meeting, a certain kind of relationship in which both people involved remember and acknowledge their true nature and worth, and strengthen what is whole in one another. By making a place for wholeness within our relationships, we offer others the opportunity to be whole without shame and become a place of refuge from everything in them and around them that is not genuine. We enable people to remember who they are.

I first learned to do this from people who were dying, people who had moved into a more authentic relationship with those around them because only that which is genuine still had meaning for them. These people had let go of the ways in which they had changed themselves to win approval, and so they made it safe for others to remove their masks as well. Their unwavering acceptance allowed me to remember something almost forgotten. In their presence I realized that many of the ways I had changed myself had made me smaller and in some ways weaker. Parts of myself that I had judged and hidden for years were welcomed and even needed by those who were dying. I felt the life in me blessed by such people; felt it expand to become its real size and shape and power, unashamed. It was a long time before I realized that you do not have to be dying in order to bless others in this way.

Those who bless and serve life find a place of belonging and strength, a refuge from living in ways that are meaningless and empty and lonely. Blessing life moves us closer to each other and closer to our authentic selves. When people are blessed they discover that their lives matter, that there is something in them worthy of blessing. And when you bless others, you may discover this same thing is true about yourself.

We do not serve the weak or the broken. What we serve is the wholeness in each other and the wholeness in life. The part in you that I serve is the same part that is strengthened in me when I serve. Unlike helping and fixing and rescuing, service is mutual. There are many ways to serve and strengthen the life around us: through friendship or parenthood or work, by kindness, by compassion, by generosity or acceptance. Through our philanthropy, our example, our encouragement, our active participation, our belief. No matter how we do this, our service will bless us.

When we offer our blessings generously, the light in the world is strengthened, around us and in us. The Kabbalah speaks of our collective human task as Tikkun Olam; we sustain and restore the world.

As a child I had loved the story of Noah and the Ark the best of all my grandfather's stories. He had given me a coloring book that had pictures of all the animals, two by two, and Noah and his wife, looking much like Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus but dressed in a different way. We spent hours coloring in this book together which is how, at almost four, I had learned the names of many animals. We had also discussed the story at length, and wondered about the surprising possibility that even God sometimes makes mistakes and has to send a flood and start all over again.

The last picture in the book was a beautiful rainbow. "This represents a promise between God and man, Neshume-le," my grandfather told me. After the flood, God promises Noah and all of us that it will never happen again.

But I was not so easily fooled. This whole thing had started because people had been wicked. "Even if we are very naughty, Grandpa?" I asked. My grandfather had laughed then. "That is what it says here in this story." He looked thoughtful. "But there are other stories," he told me. Delighted, I asked him to tell me another one.

The story he told me is very old and dates from the time of the prophet Isaiah. It is the legend of the Lamed-Vov. In this story, God tells us that He will allow the world to continue as long as at any given time there is a minimum of thirty-six good people in the human race. People who are capable of responding to the suffering that is a part of the human condition. These thirty-six are called the Lamed-Vov. If at any time, there are fewer than thirty-six such people alive, the world will come to an end.

"Do you know who these people are, Grandpa?" I asked, certain that he would say "Yes." But he shook his head. "No, Neshume-le," he told me. "Only God knows who the Lamed-Vovniks are. Even the Lamed-Vovniks themselves do not know for sure the role they have in the continuation of the world, and no one else knows it either. They respond to suffering, not in order to save the world but simply because the suffering of others touches them and matters to them."

It turned out that Lamed-Vovniks could be tailors or college professors, millionaires or paupers, powerful leaders or powerless victims. These things were not important. What mattered was only their capacity to feel the collective suffering of the human race and to respond to the suffering around them. "And because no one knows who they are, Neshume-le, anyone you meet might be one of the thirty-six for whom God preserves the world," my grandfather said. "It is important to treat everyone as if this might be so."

I sat and thought about this story for a long time. It was a different story than the story of Noah's Ark. The rainbow meant that there would be a happily-ever-after, just as in the stories my father read to me at bedtime. But Grandpa's story made no such promises. God asked something of people in return for the gift of life, and He was asking it still.

Suddenly, I realized that I had no idea what it was. If so much depended on it, it must be something very hard, something that required a great sacrifice. What if the Lamed-Vovniks could not do it? What then? "How do the Lamed-Vovniks respond to the suffering, Grandpa?" I asked, suddenly anxious. "What do they have to do?" My grandfather smiled at me very tenderly. "Ah, Neshume-le," he told me. "They do not need to do anything. They respond to all suffering with compassion. Without compassion, the world cannot continue. Our compassion blesses and sustains the world."

Recovering a greater compassion may require us to confront the core values of our culture. We are a culture that values mastery and control, that cultivates self-sufficiency, competence, independence. But in the shadow of these values lies a profound rejection of our human wholeness. As individuals and as a culture we have developed a sort of contempt for anything in ourselves and in others that has needs, and is capable of suffering. It is not a gentle world.

As life becomes colder and somehow harder, we struggle to create places of safety for ourselves and those we love through our learning, our skills, our income. We build places of security in our homes and our offices and even our cars. These places separate us from one another. Places that separate people can never be safe enough. Perhaps our only refuge is in the goodness in each other.

In a highly technological world we may forget our own goodness and place value instead on our skills and our expertise. But it is not our expertise that will restore the world. The future may depend less on our expertise than on our faithfulness to life.

Remembering how to bless each other is more important now than ever before. The solution to the destructiveness in this world is not more technical knowledge. Repairing the world may require us to find a deep connection to the life around us, to substitute the capacity to befriend life for our relentless pursuit of greater and greater expertise. It has been said that it has taken us thousands of years to recognize and defend the value of a single human life. What remains is to understand that the value of any human life is limited unless there is something in it that stands for the benefit of others and the benefit of life itself. A woman who lives in Pinson, Texas, sent me a quotation from Exodus that I think my grandfather would have loved: "Build altars in the places where I have reminded you who I am, and I will come and bless you there." The blessing we will receive when we have remembered how to bless life again may be nothing less than life itself.

I have learned a great deal about blessing and serving life from the people that I see in my office, perhaps because cancer forces people so deeply into their own vulnerability that they have touched the place of knowing that we hold such vulnerability in common. Once this is seen, there is no way one cannot respond. I have seen so many people emerge from their encounter with great loss more effortlessly compassionate and altruistic than before that I have come to wonder if blessing life is not a final step in some natural process of healing from suffering. A blessing is a place of refuge, a connecting back to the place in us where we are coherent and whole. A remembering of who we are.

One of my patients, a civil rights lawyer who almost died of cancer, told me several years afterward that this experience had enabled him to discover an unexpected power. "I find something in others that I have found in myself. Something struggling to break through obstacles and live whole," he told me. "I can see its struggle and speak its language. So I can strengthen it"--he paused thoughtfully--"as others have strengthened it in me. My wife tells me that I have finally opened my heart. Perhaps so, but that's not exactly it." He falls silent. "If it didn't sound so odd to say, I guess I can bless the life in other people and be blessed by them. I do it in my work, but it goes beyond my work. It seems just now like the most important thing I can do."

A friend and colleague told me about the first hours after she discovered that her fifteen-year-old son had drowned. She had gone downstairs to get a cup of tea, and another woman, herself shaken by grief, had chided her, asking her how she could drink tea at a time like this. "Up until then, Rachel, I had been a person who was always afraid of doing things wrong, always hesitant and full of self-doubt over the smallest action. But when she spoke to me I suddenly knew that in this I could do nothing wrong: This had struck me to a place of such depth that everything I did or said or thought or felt in response was completely true. This was beyond rules, beyond judgments. This was all mine."

Her healing has taken time, more than eighteen years. She works now with groups of people who have cancer, helping them to move through their grief and losses in order to connect back to the place in them that is coherent and whole. Speaking of this she says, "For me, the loss of my son went from a singular event to something that is woven into the fabric of my being. It is always present to me, part of my work, part of my experience. Having experienced that deep a grief, that suffering, I am no longer afraid to go back there. I have been around it and with it and come through it and I know it very well. I have also somehow survived it. I think the people in my groups know this. They know that I am not afraid anymore. It gives us permission to go to that place of grief or suffering, to acknowledge our losses and their deep significance, if that is where we need to go. I think it brings a kind of safety to the room."

She pauses thoughtfully. "It is also very affirming to return to that place because it is a place that has enormous meaning for me. Sometimes it is as if I get to be with my son again, sometimes in those moments when there is that kind of grief in the room."

The thirty-seven years that I have been a physician have shown me that any of the stuff of our lives--our joys, our failures, our loves, our losses, even our sickness--can become the stuff of service. I have seen people use anything to bless life. There is such a simple greatness in us all that nothing need be wasted.

The power to repair the world is already in you. When someone blesses you, it reminds you a little--untying the knots of belief and fear and self-doubt that have separated you from your own goodness. Freeing you to bless and receive blessings from everything around you.

One afternoon when he was very sick, my grandfather spoke to me of death and told me that he was dying. "What does this mean, Grandpa?" I asked, worried and anxious. "I will be going somewhere else, my Neshume-le. Closer to God." I was struck dumb. "Will I be able to visit you there?" I said, filled with distress. "No," he told me, "but I will watch over you and I will bless those who bless you." Almost fifty-five years have passed, and my life has been blessed by a great many people since then. Each of you has my grandfather's blessing.

Reprinted from My Grandfather's Blessings by permission of Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright (c) 2000 by Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
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Sort by: Showing all of 8 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 19, 2000

    Breath of fresh air for your soul

    This book touched my soul very deeply. It reminded me to see Blessings in ordinary events and people and to not take my loved ones for granted. It reminded me to find joy and blessing in a simple cup of coffee or just looking at a friends face. This is an excellent book for the person who is experiencing an illness or knows someone who is, or just experiencing burnout in the rat race of life. Don't let the fact that it's written by a medical doctor deter you from reading it. The wording is simple but powerful.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 16, 2011

    Indeed a Blessing

    Wonderful, beautiful healing book. I re-read it whenever life jumps on me. Science, medicine, religion and spirituality exquisitely merge together in the pages of this book. It is made up of short chapters, each made up of individual stories that help you grow. One of my all-time favorite books.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 30, 2012

    Excellent Read!!

    One of the best books I've read in a long time.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 26, 2012

    Highly Recommended

    This book is great for anyone in a career where you are helping or dealing with people on a daily basis. It gives young people entering a helping profession a sense of belonging and reaffirms their reasons for getting into the field. For veterans in the various fields, it gives a sense of rejuvenation and reminds you why you got into your career in the first place.

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  • Posted October 14, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    A Favorite

    If I were limited to only five books, this would be one I would choose. Rachel Remen's simple but powerful stories present lessons in loving, walking with people through their pain, and real relationship. They provide wonderful lessons -- without being preachy.

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    Posted September 27, 2011

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    Posted June 26, 2013

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    Posted December 9, 2013

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