I have been so touched by the posts many of you have shared on my Facebook page or my website about a time when you were small and recognized that the needs of a living thing mattered to you. Every one of them is a love story. As children we had the capacity to simply love life even in some of its humblest forms… an earthworm… a duckling… even an ant, but as adults we often hide our love or even experience it as something else.
How many times are our actions actually motivated by love without our ever knowing it, even when our love is profound and part of who we essentially are? It is easy to recognize romantic love, parental love, fraternal love, the love of country and the love of friends. But how about those of us who love with our minds, studying for years in order to be there with the knowledge to help strangers or those of us who persevere despite daily difficulties because of a deep love of life.
When I was first diagnosed with Crohn’s disease at the age of 15, I was enraged. My illness separated me from other people my own age. The fun they had and the things they did together required a physical strength that was far beyond my capacity. For the next several years I was a deeply angry person, hating all the well people, isolated and envious and resentful.
When I was 21, I was excluded from the opportunity to spend a summer with my classmates offering help to people in a remote village in Central America. When I discovered that I would not be selected to go because of my physical vulnerability, I was flooded with rage. In the midst of the most intense feelings, I suddenly had a very strange thought. This anger is not true. It’s really your love of life turned inside out. I was stunned. I had believed my anger for years. Yet somehow I was able to see that intense as it was, it was not real and it had never been real. What was real is that I loved life passionately and deeply. I had not known this. The anger had gotten in the way. My love of life was exactly as intense and constant as my rage had been but it was different. It connected me to the world around me rather than shutting me out of it. In the blink of an eye I realized I could find ways to live from this passionate and loving place, my own ways. I was not going to Costa Rica, but this could not stop me from finding ways to love life. The rage that had been my constant companion was gone and it never came back.
There are other places in my life where love has disguised itself as something else. Like the practice of medicine. It’s taken me many years to recognize that medicine is a form of love. The ancients knew that love and not expertise was the foundation of medicine but we, seduced by science, have almost forgotten this.
According to Cicero, The Temples of Aesculapius, the world’s first major health center, was built around a statue of Venus, the Goddess of Love. As a young doctor this was so completely outside of my daily experience that after reading it I put it out of my mind and forgot it. It has taken years to recognize this as the deepest truth about the work of all health professionals. Many of us may still believe that loving our patients is unprofessional or weak or even shameful. We have allowed our science to separate us from our truth.
Love is a part of our Lineage. In the 14th century, Maimonides — asking for the wisdom and strength to practice the medical arts — said: Inspire me with love for all of thy creatures. May I see in all who suffer only the fellow human being.
For several generations now we have not been trained to be fellow human beings. We have been trained to be experts. But perhaps now is the time to escape the limitations of our training and remember the source of our strength. For all of its scientific and technological power, this work we do is not a work of Science. Science is only our most recent set of tools. This work is a work of Service and Service is a special kind of love.
The Healer’s Art, the course I developed for first year medical students, is now taught at 90 medical schools across the country and around the world. For the past few years the students who take this course at UCSF where I still teach it have designed a T-shirt for their class. It says THE HEALER’S ART: BECAUSE MEDICINE IS AN ACT OF LOVE. The thought of all these beautiful young people wandering the halls of one of the most respected research-oriented medical schools in the world in these shirts gives me a deep sense of belonging.
One of the deans at a Medical school in the Eastern United States commented that after teaching the Healer’s Art, he had noticed a shift in his own relationship to medicine. “For me this course is like discovering after 40 years that you have not only married the right woman but that you are completely and hopelessly in love.”
So what is your own experience of this? What keeps you going? Is your work an act of love… or not? Can you remember a time when you allowed your love to show in your work? What happened? If you have some thoughts or stories to share, please do so in the comments below.