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Volume 2, Issue 4
Winter 2006:

Measuring a Life

Brian T. Maurer

Cell 2 Soul. 2006 Winter; 2(4):a17

Based on presentation at Cell 2 Soul Conference
November 12, 2006

How do you measure a life?

At first glance it sounds so simple. Stroll through any cemetery or graveyard, visit any sepulcher or memorial, and there before your eyes etched in granite you will find the answer: name, date of birth, date of death. In Western culture, we measure a life by its longevity. Yet there is much more to a life than just its span of years.

In medical practice, we attempt to measure lives in scientific terms. When a patient comes to see us for an evaluation, we record his height, weight, perhaps head circumference; vital signs such as temperature, pulse and respiratory rates, blood pressure, and the concentration of oxygen in the blood. If our patient is sick enough, we may take a closer look at blood chemistries or cell counts, even an imaging study. Such parameters can give us an idea of how well or ill our patient is, although none can individually measure the life itself.

To measure the depth of a life, we need a new set of tools, a new scale of measurements — something less precise perhaps, but more profound. Through three decades of medical practice, I have learned to intuit the breadth and depth of a life through the use of story.

Ernest Hemingway wrote that every man's life is a novel if written down truly. If that be the case, then every patient has at least a short story to tell. As practitioners of the healing arts, to plumb the depth of a life, we have to learn to listen.

A decade ago, at one of the early Art & Calling conferences here in Williamstown, a prestigious physician and teacher of the medical humanities stood at a similar podium and addressed the audience with a rendition of what his undergraduate and medical schooling had been like. It certainly was nothing that he wished to repeat. I distinctly remember one turn of phrase he used to describe the light at the end of the tunnel: "and then there were the stories."

The stories he referred to were those that patients shared with him: stories of illness — how they had gotten sick; stories of past treatments — many of which fell short of the mark; stories of disappointments and hopes; stories of fears and newfound peace through acceptance; stories of facing mortality and imminent death.

It is only when we give the patient permission to speak as we listen with a non-judgmental posture that we begin to probe the depth of his life. It takes two to talk story: a speaker and a listener. And it is through the telling of the story that the patient can approach healing — not necessarily in a physical sense, but in the Old English sense of the word — to be made whole.

There is more to measuring a life than just the span of years. In the end it's the depth of the life that counts the most — that dimension that we can't see with the eye, but rather with the heart.

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