Rachel Remen 23 years old

photo of Rachel Naomi Remen, MD, age 23

Yesterday I was going through some boxes in my garage when I came across an unlabeled box. It was full of very old pictures. This picture was on the top. And thereby hangs a tale……….

In 1962, when I was one of few women in my medical training program, my femininity was seen as a professional weakness, collectively denied not only by my male colleagues but also by myself. Succeeding in medicine meant overcoming this obstacle. I was determined to succeed.

In the first year of my residency training, I was randomly assigned to a House Staff team with several star players, all men. I greatly admired the skills and competence of my colleagues and was delighted to be a part of this team. Once after a long night in an inner city emergency room, dealing with seizures, beatings and one final heart-stopping automobile accident involving three small children, my senior resident turned to me as we were walking, exhausted, towards the elevators that would take us back to the doctor’s quarters. Shamefacedly, he confessed that he had not wanted me on his team but now that I was here he was glad that I had been assigned to him. “Working with you is just like working with a man,” he told me.

Although I was careful to appear unmoved by his words, inwardly I was overwhelmed. It was a treasured moment in my professional life. It would be many years before I stopped seeing it as a profound compliment. There was nothing in my training or my professional experience that reflected my wholeness back to me or honored it in any way. And as I had not realized I had lost it, I did nothing to defend it.

Soon after my training, I received a powerful reinforcement for the person I had become; I was appointed Associate Director of the Pediatric Clinics at Stanford, my first position of real authority within the medical system. I now had an office of my own with my name on the door and a tiny budget to buy a few items of professional furniture. Thrilled, I had gone shopping for a lamp and a desk chair.

Stepping into a local furniture store, I immediately noticed a little porcelain statue of an Oriental woman spilling water from a flask onto the ground. The minute I saw it, I knew that I wanted it for my office. But my budget had no leeway for such a thing and I could not spend Stanford’s money on it so I left without it. That night I awoke from a nightmare terrified and feeling as if I was dying. In my dream the porcelain woman had come alive and called out to me, saying “Don’t leave me behind! Don’t leave me behind!” Shaking it off, I went back to sleep…but the next night I dreamed of her again. Again I awoke with a sense of dread and the feeling that I was dying. So even though it meant spending money out of my own slender savings, I went back and bought the statue and brought it to my new office.

Because there was no other place to put it, I left it on my desk right next to the phone. It was there for years. Often I would hold it in my hand while I was working through some of the more complex decisions about the clinic and its large staff or returning the calls my patients had made to me. Slowly over time, I started to remember myself. When I left the University to begin what has become my lifework, I took the statue with me. She was the only thing in my office that actually belonged to me. Everything else that had surrounded me for years belonged to Stanford.

I now know that the little statue is an image of Kwan Yin, the goddess of compassion, sometimes described as the feminine aspect of the Buddha. Despite an intense and very conscious effort to cast myself in another mold, something in me had recognized her instantly and had claimed her for my own. I had held her close to me long before my conscious mind knew who she was and that in a profound way, she represented my healing. Here is a picture of the young woman who bought the Kwan Yin statue for reasons she did not understand. I hold her close to me too and am grateful for the deep wisdom in her that reached out for compassion, despite all.

Symbolism is the language of the unconscious mind, the deep wisdom that is part of how we are made. Many things we do without thinking are ways the unconscious reminds us of our larger nature and heals us. It may take many years before we can draw the sword from the stone personally and know who we truly are. Before that time, the unconscious may reach out, without our knowing, to feed parts of ourselves which have been neglected and disowned and strengthen them until we can come back for them.