Friday, January 27, 2006
January 27, 2006 - Caring and Curing
I'm thinking today about two words: "care" and "cure."
Only one letter separates them. But they're closely related in other ways.
Not long ago – using a gift certificate the church had given me, in celebration of my 15 years here as pastor – I bought a book I've always wanted: The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. ("Shorter" is a relative term when it comes to this dictionary's two very thick volumes, but it's still a far cry from the 16-volume complete OED.) I've long wanted to own this treasure trove of information about word origins.
Word origins are a hobby – some would say an obsession – of my brother Dave, who's got his own website devoted to this subject, and has even published a book, Word Myths, on "linguistic urban legends." So I'm aware that what I'm going to say here about "care" and "cure" is strictly an amateur effort, compared to the sort of thing he does.
My Shorter OED tells me the word "cure" is derived from the Latin cura, which means "care for." We can also see that old Latin word pop up in the word "curate" (a priest who cares for the needs of a parish), and in "curator" (someone who guards and oversees a museum's collections).
Yet the modern word "cure" means more than just looking after someone's needs. It means bringing about a change in the person, from sickness to wellness. That meaning is similar, I suppose, to another sense of the word "cure": creating a chemical change in something in order to preserve it – as when a tanner "cures" a piece of leather, or a farmer "cures" a ham by smoking it.
And what of our English word, "care"? The origins of that word are completely different. "Care" doesn't come from the Latin at all, but rather from the Germanic family of languages. The Saxon or Old Norse root of "care" is a word describing a wail of sorrow or grief. Think not so much of a nurse calmly spooning medicine into the mouth of a bedridden patient, but rather of some horned-helmeted Viking, roaring in grief at the sight of a fallen comrade. To care, in the oldest sense of the word, is to have your emotional equilibrium shattered.
Yet these two similar-sounding words, different as they are in their origins, are still linked together in some remarkable ways. How are patients ever cured of their illnesses unless someone also cares for them in the emotional sense? Sure, scientifically-based medical treatments are vital to healing, but they've got to be seasoned with love if they're to be fully effective.
Rachel Naomi Remen, author of Kitchen Table Wisdom, has something to say about this. She's a medical doctor who for years has specialized in treating the emotional needs of cancer patients. One of her patients, a man named Dieter, had reached the end of the road of his chemotherapy treatments. They were no longer making any difference, medically speaking. As he conferred with his oncologist about the wisdom of stopping treatments, he asked the doctor – whom he liked very much – if he could continue to come in and meet with him, anyway, just to talk. The doctor became visibly uncomfortable. "If you refuse chemotherapy," he explained curtly, "there's nothing more I can do for you." Reluctantly, Dieter elected to continue receiving his weekly injection, for this was the only way he could keep seeing his doctor.
Explaining his decision to a cancer support group sometime later, Dieter lamented, "My doctor's love is as important to me as his chemotherapy, but he doesn't know."
That would be a compelling story in itself, but there's more. Let's let Dr. Remen herself continue it:
"Dieter's statement meant a great deal to me. I had not known, either.... Medicine is as close to love as it is to science, and its relationships matter even at the edge of life itself.
But I had yet another connection to Dieter's story. His oncologist was one of my patients. Week after week, from the depths of chronic depression, this physician would tell me that no one cared about him, he didn't matter to anyone, he was just another white coat in the hospital, a mortgage payment to his wife, a tuition check to his son. No one would notice if he vanished as long as someone was there to make rounds or take out the garbage. So here is Dieter, bringing the same validation, the same healing to his doctor that he brought to me, but his doctor, caught up in a sense of failure because he cannot cure the cancer, cannot receive it." (Kitchen Table Wisdom; Riverhead, 1996, p. 65)
Caring and curing: they’re intimately related, in ways most of us can only begin to imagine. I feel very fortunate indeed to have a family, a church community and a team of medical practitioners who care for me deeply, even as we work together toward achieving a cure – or, in the case of my NHL, at least a remission.