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    Cured of the Incurable

    An Interview with Jeffrey Rediger, MD

    By Jeffrey Rediger

    November 27, 2021

    Plough’s Reuben Zimmerman interviews Jeffrey Rediger about his book Cured: The Life-Changing Science of Spontaneous Healing.

    Plough: In your new book Cured, you’ve written about people who were in fact cured – or who at least experienced amazing remissions – from very serious illnesses, including cases of cancer which should have rapidly been terminal. How often do such cures happen?

    Jeffrey Rediger, MD: These amazing remissions are more common than is often assumed. In medical school, we were taught that they are rare, occurring in perhaps 1/100,000 cases. This number is reported over and over in the scientific literature. But you can’t find any good basis for this particular figure, and I have looked!

    I have yet to give a talk where someone doesn’t come up to me afterwards and say, “You need to speak with so-and-so,” or “You need to speak with my friend, my uncle.” But we don’t know what to do with these accounts because they fall outside of our paradigm, and so we don’t study them, and we are afraid to report them, and we assume that there’s some other materialist explanation, or that there was a misdiagnosis. In almost all cases, we make assumptions and fail to be curious.

    So we need to be more curious, and look much more carefully at the people who find themselves cured of incurable diseases – ask ourselves what is going on, and why, and how. That’s the scientific method, and that is how we can bring these apparently rare cases to bear on other people’s hopeless diagnoses.

    Your book suggests that spontaneous healing may not be as spontaneous as we think: that mind does indeed have power over matter, and that some of the miracles we see in medicine may actually have biological explanations. Can you elaborate?

    In this context, the word “spontaneous” means “without cause.” Everything has a cause and to assume that it doesn’t is very unscientific. We just haven’t asked the right questions. If you are on the science side you call this spontaneous remission and you are taught that it’s a fluke, with no medical or scientific value. If you are on the spiritual side, you call it a miracle, or “spiritual healing.” But all of these terms are black boxes and have not been adequately unpacked.

    Mind does indeed have power over matter. One big question, of course, is how we best define “mind.” Is it the just the firing of neurons in our brains? Is it God? And can we participate in the larger Mind of God?

    We live in a culture that is very materialist in its worldview. We are taught from a young age that the world of the five senses is the primary world, and even our theologies have been influenced by this lens. This perspective can be seen as the gift of the West to the rest of the world. Through this perspective, we have been able to elucidate the laws of the physical universe and, in so doing, create a world that is more physically comfortable than anything humanity has known up to now. From this perspective has come the rise of modern convenience as well as the assumption that the primary reality of the brain is biology, and that even the higher, more invisible functions of the mind, such as rational thought, feelings of love, happiness, and sadness, arise from the functioning of neurons.

    But is this the deeper truth? Do the higher aspects of mind depend on the biology of the brain and body? Not all cultures see or interpret the world through this materialist lens. Some cultures experience the world of the five senses as true up to a certain point, but believe that the invisible world is more powerful, and more real – that the mind or soul of a person is immortal, and has taken on the envelope of the body just temporarily. Christianity itself has shifted quite a bit in its assumptions about this.


    Image created from photographs by Anirudh and Hal Gatewood

    Science is good at elucidating mechanisms – at breaking down complex mysteries into component parts and figuring out what is going on at the level of biological pathways and processes. But you need religion and theology to deal with the larger questions about reality: who we are as human beings, and the nature of the universe. These things cannot be addressed by Newtonian science.

    You cite Ellen Langer, who discovered that people who have positive and optimistic views about aging do better than those who are pessimistic and negative – that a positive outlook improves health and extends life even more than exercising or quitting smoking, and that negative thoughts about aging increase your risk of Alzheimer’s. Does this apply to other areas of medicine as well?

    Yes, Langer’s own path-breaking research was at least to some degree sparked by what appears to have been the spontaneous remission of her own mother’s breast cancer.

    Attitude is critical. But positive thinking can be misunderstood. If a patient tries to be “positive” when in truth they have a lot of unresolved fear, loss, or repressed anger, then positive thinking without facing and healing an individual’s trauma could in fact be harmful.

    In her book God’s Hotel: A Doctor, a Hospital, and a Pilgrimage to the Heart of Medicine, the San Francisco physician, Victoria Sweet writes about how she came to see patients as plants, with the hospital environment as the soil. She suggests that if we can improve the soil, the plant will heal itself, and she came to this conclusion while sitting in the ICU at the bedside of a seemingly incurable patient. She writes about stopping to think before we rush to order tests and write prescriptions. How do these ideas relate to the premise of your book?

    Every person needs to feel seen and loved, as if they matter. We communicate this by actually seeing them. We should see them in the fullness of their humanity – what is right, whole and complete – rather than just what is wrong or missing. That’s challenging in the context of a model that is disease-centered rather than person-centered. A disease-centered model is built around what is missing from a patient, rather than what is right, good, and already whole.

    Environment is indeed everything. But environment isn’t just a physical space. It is also the emotional experience of a person. For example, we know that obesity is linked to sexual abuse or other trauma in a certain subset of patients, and that unless you can address these underlying problems – the shame and the fear – you won’t make any progress in addressing the eating disorder and the obesity and hypertension and diabetes.

    What is really making us sick? Is it the germs themselves, or how our body reacts to them? Louis Pasteur and Ignaz Semmelweis made important contributions to science when they recognized the role of pathogens. But already in their lifetime, people questioned the conclusion that we should destroy germs at all costs. Already then, Antoine Bechamp began to talk about what we now refer to as the microbiome – about the beneficial and symbiotic bacteria that colonize our bodies. His colleague Claude Bernard famously drank a glass of water contaminated with cholera to prove his point that the “terrain is everything, and the germ nothing.” (Bernard held that germs do not cause disease on their own; their ability to cause disease depends on a pre-existing breakdown of the body.)

    We are made in the image of God. Embracing this idea can lead to incredible revelation and to change.

    Einstein said, “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.” Yet twenty-first-century medicine tends to want to explain everything in terms of biology, chemistry, and physics, and when it fails, to deny that what it’s seeing is real. Your thoughts?

    It’s fascinating to me – and an important lesson, I believe – that the greatest scientist of the last century viewed imagination and feeling and an awareness of the mystery and wonder of the universe as more important than the world as it appears to be, or as it is understood by science. He was guided by humility and understood that to understand is to “stand under” – to allow reality to speak to us, to move through us, and for us to respond in kind.

    We are often taught that science is about control, an ego-based kind of left-brained knowing, one that reduces knowledge to a fear-based restricted logic. In truth, from Einstein’s standpoint, science is about surrender to a larger, transcendent mystery, a higher logic.

    Those of us who practice medicine know that there is a subset of patients for whom illness can become a way of life, and who may not actually want to get better – even if not consciously – because of the psychological scaffolding that illness and illness behavior seem to provide for them. How can we help such people move forward?

    We help them by helping them to experience their value: to feel loved and seen, and to ask themselves good questions about what might be going on at a deeper level. Where do they have difficulty saying “No”? Where do they have difficulty acknowledging to themselves, that they are valuable, that they matter in the context of a universe that is friendly? What are the traumas that have given them a misunderstanding of their value and the kind of universe we live in?

    Something in every human soul does not rest until it experiences unconditional love. Working with the dialectic – the apparent tension – between this basic reality and the need for each one of us to still wake up to the responsibility and possibility of our own destiny and purpose, is key.

    But again, the very first thing that has to happen is that the person has to feel and experience love – that they are valued. And a person can feel that immediately, when you walk into the room. They need to feel understood and not judged. Once they are loved, and understood, then you can challenge them, by helping them face their behaviors.

    Earlier this year, there was a very intriguing study which came out of McLean – the famous psychiatric institute outside Boston where you yourself work – about the importance of faith, and how belief in God improves outcomes for people being treated for mental illness. How can we as practitioners of medicine do better to engage with our patients on this level?

    What is faith? Is it a deep belief that I matter, that my life has value and purpose, and that the world is safe and favorably disposed toward me? Or is it a set of theological constructs that have been worked out by my theological community? I argue for the former, though this is often different from what is taught.

    As a psychiatrist, I would say that what people call “faith” often seems to be based on fear. And fear is not faith. But yes: faith matters. Every person wants and needs to know that they matter, that they have a place in the world, and that the universe is friendly.

    Paul Tillich said that every person has one “ultimate concern” around which they build their entire lives. This ultimate concern may be either conscious or unconscious. Many people talk about the importance of their spiritual faith. Understandably, they deeply believe they have a faith. But their friends or family around them who see the bigger picture of their lives notice clearly that in fact their ultimate concern may not actually be faith, rather it is their career or financial success or being attractive. Woody Allen wisely said that his parent’s values were “God and carpeting.”

    The truth is, we are not always so good at knowing what our true “faith” is, or in what it is that we truly place our faith – especially when we factor in the role of trauma, and how this affects our experience of ourselves and the world.

    I want to circle back to your book Cured. Of course, we all know that not everybody will be cured: most people with cancer will eventually succumb to their disease, and if it is not cancer, all of us are eventually going to die of something. How can we find a healthy acceptance of our own mortality?

    It was actually Christians in Brazil who fundamentally changed my ideas about death. They helped me see how materialistic Western Christianity tends to be in its orientation. And by “materialism” they don’t mean a focus on money, but that we view the world through an overly reductionist material lens, and therefore the body through a reductionist physical lens.

    We tend to assume that the body is who we primarily are and that the soul is somehow attached to it – whereas their belief, in its best expression, is that a person is first and foremost a soul, and secondarily a body. They genuinely do believe that the invisible world is the primary world, and that the visible world is secondary to that more fundamental reality.

    The implications of this are immense. Their belief in the immortality of the soul influences their view of death. They believe that the body is a temporary envelope for the immortal soul. In this context death is never a disaster. It’s a transition: not the end of anything substantial but a transition to another sphere or way of being.

    I will say that this has resulted in a transformation of my views not only of death but also of many other things. I now see the soul as the primary reality of who we are, and the physical body as a metaphor for something that the deeper soul is trying to learn.

    Contributed By

    Jeffrey Rediger, MD, who has a Masters of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, is the Medical Director for Adult Psychiatry and Community Affairs at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts, as well as an Assistant Professor at Harvard Medical School. He is the author of Cured: The Life-Changing Science of Spontaneous Healing (Flatiron Books, 2020). He was interviewed for Plough in Framingham, Massachusetts, on August 27, 2021.

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