Greetings from the Program in Narrative Medicine at Columbia University in New York! I so wish I could be with you all in Portland September 16-18 for the NWNM inaugural conference. I am assuming that there will be many more! Looking at the program, I see many of you–Louise Aronson, Elizabeth Lahti, Ellen Michaelson, among them–who’ve been with us at Narrative Medicine Workshops in New York from the very beginning of our work. We started Narrative Medicine at Columbia University in 2000, replacing what we had been calling Humanities and Medicine or Literature and Medicine because, as Elizabeth wrote in What Narrative Medicine Means to Me, it is so much more than simply reading or telling stories of illness and care. It is a philosophy and a practice of care that extends from the deepest interior of the clinician or the patient toward the work we do together. Through our practice, we come to realize what it means to be alive, to be with others, to suffer and to relieve suffering, to be human and mortal–all of it, within these clearings we can open for ourselves and one another.
Elizabeth’s blog, to which I’m responding, represents so eloquently exactly these realizations, as she moves from deathbed to deathbed of a Thanksgiving evening in the hospital, not facing a wall between the living and the dying but rather reaching out her hand gently to touch the veil of delicate silk that separates these two states. This sense of peace and change and endurance is called forth in the image on the conference’s website, the image of the clearing. It is one we, too, have been attracted to, for narrative medicine creates safety, protection, but yet a presence in the real, ordinary world of trees and moss and sky.
The combination of scholarly presentations, clinical observations, individual illness narratives, and artistic performances that I see on the conference agenda rings all the bells, as it were, of the transformations that take place in narrative medicine. My colleagues and I just had a first conference call with five other organizations in New York committed to healing through narrative work to discuss collaborative work we can do together toward racial justice in America. These are the narrative circles that we create–exceeding even health care issues toward seeking means to face conflict, overcome polarizations, and support justice. We see the same forces at work on the part of authors published in our on-line journal Intima and among our graduate students and alums from the Master of Science in Narrative Medicine graduate program at Columbia. Drawn from so many health professions–nursing, social work, veterinary medicine, psychoanalysis, physical therapy, integrative practices–as well as from creative backgrounds, these students and graduates and colleagues are transforming health care teams and bringing creativity into the heart of health care. Likewise, the narrative medicine work underway with our partners in Paris, in Tokyo, in Lisbon, in Jerusalem, among other sites, confirms our highest hopes that narrative clearings empower persons with a stake in effective and just health care. Remember what Roland Barthes said–“[N]arrative is international, transhistorical, transcultural; it is simply there, like life itself.” Through narrative, we cross boundaries between our sometimes warring health professions, cultural and language boundaries, and boundaries around the very concepts we hold about illness and health to together name the power of the care of the sick, to find relief from the isolation of illness or illness care, to discover the joy (remember, Richard Selzer called it a “black joy”) of helping others by witnessing suffering and illness.
We extend our hearts and minds to the thither coast, happy to have partners and friends joining in creating this field, extending its reach, originating new dimensions of its work. Although I cannot show you what it will look like yet, I want to announce that Oxford University Press is about to release the Columbia group’s new book, The Principles and Practice of Narrative Medicine. It has been a work of love, writing chapters together that not only lay out the philosophical and literary concepts that form the foundation of narrative medicine but also describe the unique teaching and clinical practice made possible through this work. Publication date is November 4, 2016 (four days before the–shudder–election). It was our contribution to the national and international conversation that you, now, in Portland are amplifying and deepening.
Thank you all for this tremendous celebration of an idea and launch of a new network of colleagues. What I’ve learned from the patients in my primary care practice is my North Star, guiding my own work toward being present, recognizing the other, humbly seeking for what might help. I agree that this work brings blessings all around–so that caregivers are graced with dignity, the care is tender and humble, and the sick are not alone.
With deep regard,