Simon, the son of Rabban Gamliel, said:“
I was brought up all my life among the Sages,
and I have found nothing as good for the body as silence,
and it is not study that is the essence – but the practice,
and whoever is profuse of words occasions sin.”
Out of the blue came an invitation to write an unusual speech
The address would take place at an elegant dinner hosted by a local hospital foundation. The event honored a physician’s many years of skillful service to the community. I accepted the writing assignment with some hesitancy … at least until I placed the first phone call to a colleague of the honoree. “He’s the finest doctor I’ve ever known,” the fellow internist reported simply. “He’s the kind of role model every physician could and should use.”
A second call to a family friend produced a comparable response: “His life gives meaning to qualities like humanness, patience, and compassion. He deals with humble people as if they were important people and communicates sincerely with everyone he touches. And he never limits himself in his relationships.”
After several calls, I realized that the emerging portrait contained nothing about the man’s clinical skills. While everyone with whom I spoke contributed defining brushstrokes, their observations had less to do with the doctor’s professional competence than with his character and commitment to listen to his patients. The real bonus seemed to be that his career opened him to a dimension of spirit everyone recognized as a healing gift.
Aside from his obvious kindness, he inspired patients in ways that helped them be well. A faithfulness to serve the life and people around him also strengthened the life within him and within his family. Everyone agreed he was a gifted doctor highly invested in his patients’ wellbeing and being well.
He attended to the souls of his patients
Years earlier this physician decided to let go of the typical clinical obsession with fascinating medical problems. Instead, he immersed himself in the daily routine of a healer. With compassion and awe, he attended to the souls of his patients as well as their bodies. He discovered that a person’s spirit was not just a human potential but a human need. From where he stood, too much scientific objectivity could make a person blind to the whole picture of health and healing. Though expert clinical skills rewarded him with a respected practice, he never lost sight of who he was and what he wished to share with the world. His was a commitment to care for others, to seek wholeness, and to recognize the value and dignity of each person he touched.
The award ceremony featured several distinguished guests who regaled the audience with glowing stories about the honoree. Finally, the time for a presentation arrived. The physician shyly approached the microphone to make his acceptance speech. It was brief though, from his standpoint, not brief enough.
Nothing becomes a person more than silence
“There is nothing that becomes a person more than silence,” he began. “Silence is a safeguard for wisdom.” Thus, with a simple and gracious thank you, he returned to his seat. If anybody was disappointed at his lack of ceremony, they never showed it. Everyone seemed to understand perfectly.
In a place of quiet wisdom, this fellow had developed an uncanny ability to hear, nourish, and strengthen people. He practiced a rare kind of medicine. He embraced a simplicity synonymous with humility – a word derived from the Latin meaning humus, earth. To be humble means to be in touch with the earth and all her inhabitants.
It’s safe to say we live in times of uprooted traditions, unclear guidelines, and fears about protecting our health and the health of those we love. Often silence and listening get cancelled out by shouting and doubting. Much attention is focused on winning and less on wisdom. Some say that cardiac bypass surgery is a metaphor for our culture, a culture that has bypassed the heart and forgotten how to listen from the level of the heart. In many ways, alienation and cynicism have wounded us. Nagging doubts about the future of our careers, politics, finances, and personal lives can erode confidence and hope. Yet within this ambiguous center of anxiety lies a fundamental truth – we must listen to and connect with one another. We must sustain not just ourselves and our own dreams but also the hopes and dreams of others and of the larger community. Our future rests in our capacity to listen to our lives and to one another. Whether we’re health professionals or simply trying to find the path toward wholeness, we all gain life when we realize the healing power this honored physician brought to his work and life.
Each of us is on a journey that offers possibilities for healing
Whether we teach school, care for children, or practice medicine, nobody and nothing can take away our choice of how we will respond to life’s disruptive encounters. The physician faces a woman newly diagnosed with breast cancer. He steps down from his clinical pedestal, removes the curtain that protects his heart, and listens. A friend makes room in her busy day for another whose marriage has met head-on with limitation and failure. She touches the friend’s hand and knows. An alcoholic finds freedom in recovery. He feels welcomed and challenged by his new AA family and wholesome friendships. A nurse places a cool cloth on the forehead of a fifteen-year-old girl who has just miscarried her baby. Sometimes a simple touch or quiet presence requires nothing more than silence to perform its healing work.
Author and educator, Parker Palmer writes extensively about community, spirituality and social change. In his book Let Your Life Speak, he implores readers with a potent request: “Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you. Before you tell your life what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let your life tell you what truths you embody and what values you represent.” Given the unsettled times in which we find ourselves, I believe this entreaty also invites us to watch and listen.
Everyone wants to be heard
My experience as a chaplain tells me that everyone wants to be heard. Everyone wants to matter. Like the honored physician, when we listen from the level of our heart, we offer the kind of hope that can hold greater power than prescriptions or words of advice. This kind of listening also lies at the heart of justice, love, and peace. Yet It requires silencing ourselves, creating an empty space in which others can feel safe expressing their ideas, needs, and fears. Our need to listen is surpassed only by our need to connect and walk together on the holy ground of our human experience. If the honored physician brought a single priceless quality to his medical practice, it was his gift of attentive silence offered to each patient who walked through his office door. If hope holds the future of the world, the fruit of the physician’s gift holds the possibility of a renewed humanity.