Healing and Community

Healing reconnects the sufferer both to the self and to the world. The final and perhaps least appreciated aspect of healing is the need for this reconnection to take place in the context of a community, a need as real for the healer as it is for the sufferer. Healing requires from the healer a commitment over time to become a person capable of compassion and therefore of healing, who has the deep knowledge of how to fuse power and powerlessness, strength and vulnerability. This openness to vulnerability required of healers is more than a simple disposition to the notion of vulnerability. As Brody notes, there is a difference between being

"disposed" to something and striving over time to become something. It is the latter that is the mark of virtue.

In cultivating compassion as a professional virtue, healers must be willing to be formed by a compassionate community, "confident that they will receive empathic compassion and support from each other as they attend to the sufferings of their patients" (Brody, 1992, p. 267). In this arena, Brody ruefully notes, implicit issues of power have most stood in the way of the profession's reform. The self-imposed image of the physician as a powerful, scientific, objective individual, he says, works against the development of any effective peer support system. But it also cripples the physician's ability to be present to those in pain, which, as Stanley Hauerwas notes (1985), should be the goal of medical training.

For Hauerwas, "the physician's basic pledge is not to cure, but to share through being present to the one in pain" (p. 220). This pledge is difficult to carry out on a day-to-day basis. No individual has the resources to see so much pain without that pain hardening him or her. Pain, as Scarry notes, is destructive of human community; hence the prime directive of the healer to be present to those in pain carries with it an embodied threat to the ability to continue to be a healer. She or he must not only be formed as a healer by a compassionate community, but must also be continually sustained and nurtured by such a community—the kind of community, Hauerwas notes, that the Christian church claims to be.

There is a rich and varied tradition of healing not only within the Christian church but also in virtually every religious tradition. In fact, the role of healer in early societies encompassed not only the people's health but their entire welfare, including their spiritual welfare. The specialization that has accompanied modern civilization, however, makes discussion of the relationship between healing and religious belief problematic in that it is no longer clear who is priest, who is healer, and whose authority should predominate. The relation of medicine to particular religious traditions (Numbers and Amundsen) and the relevance of theological ideas, particularly that of covenant, to medical ethics (May) have opened up areas of fruitful exploration for both medicine and religion. But it may be well to concentrate, as Hauerwas does, not on these theoretical relationships but on the practical relation between communities, between those who practice religion and those who practice healing.

It is in this sense, Hauerwas says, that those who profess to heal need religion—not to provide miracles when there is a failure to cure, not even to supply a foundation for their moral commitments, but rather as a source of the habits and practices necessary to sustain them over the long haul as they care for those in pain. There needs to be a body of people who have learned the skills of presence to keep the world of the ill from becoming a separate world, both for the sake of the ill and for those who care for them. "Only a community that is pledged not to fear the stranger (and illness always makes us a stranger to ourselves and others) can welcome the continued presence of the ill in our midst" (Hauerwas, p. 223).

In the final analysis, healing is a communal action whose goal is the restoration not only of physical and mental wholeness to those who suffer illness but also of their integrity as persons, that is, as beings-in-relation to themselves and to other persons. It is a communal action in two senses: It reaches out to those isolated by illness to reconnect them to the human family; and it is sustainable only within a community that practices compassion as a virtue. The future of the healing professions everywhere depends as much on this nurture as on technical competence and the wise use of material resources. Those who profess to heal must know that no one is fully healed until all are healed.


SEE ALSO: African Religions; Alternative Therapies; Body: Cultural and Religious Perspectives; Care; Christianity, Bioethics in; Compassionate Love; Daoism, Bioethics in; Disability; Grief and Bereavement; Health and Disease; Hinduism, Bioethics in; Human Dignity; Life, Quality of; Medicine, Art of; Narrative; Native American Religions, Bioethics in; Professional-Patient Relationship; Teams, Healthcare; Trust; Virtue and Character

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