In Quest of Healing

Boy and Sheep Lying under a Tree
Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1881

We are just back from one of our weeks in California, in quest of healing for my neuropathy.  As I’ve said here before, the experimental treatment on offer at Loma Linda’s neuropathy clinic sees the illness as the result of inflammation blocking neural circuits as well as the tiny blood vessels that feed them.  The treatment combines finely targeted, light-touch massage, dietary changes plus an exercise program. 

In my case at least, healing proceeds inch by inch.  This means that – though objective measurements do show incremental improvements – symptomatically (on my end) it’s often hard to tell.

I have reason to trust and like Director Mark Bussell and his neuropathy treatment team.  One reason is that they are not inclined to deny failures.  But that’s not the only reason.  They have a new approach to an affliction from which millions now suffer hopelessly, so I feel part of pathbreaking work at a medical frontier.

Anyway, all this leads me to reflect on what it’s like to have a body of which you cannot quite approve.

“Approve!  Whaddya mean?” you are inclined to protest good-heartedly.  “It’s not your fault that you have a physical handicap restricting your ability to walk!  You didn’t choose to have it.  Right?”


Well, there’s the rub.  Reasonably or not, we tend to fault ourselves for … among other things for which we bear no apparent responsibility … our physical afflictions.  Whatever the ideally improved account of the mind/body connection might turn out to be – the effort to get the subjective (what it’s like to be only me) components swallowed up by the publicly-inspectable, objective features (how we all measure that) hasn’t succeeded yet.  Subjectivity remains indigestible by objectivity.  Philosopher Tom Nagel and others have precisely shown that, so far as I can see.

What’s more, one of the obstacles to demonstrating the efficacy of a proposed medical treatment is that placebos, accompanied by the assurance that these pills will cure the patient’s condition, compete with the “real” medication in their remedial effect.

Also, outside the realm of controlled studies, many of us have experienced remission of a symptom when we got good news unexpectedly.  And of course, the reverse is true also.  Bad news can revive an illness we believed cured.

So, how much of me is doing this neuropathy to myself – and what does that truant part of me hope to get out of it?

If, silently and subliminally, you have been asking yourself that about me, please don’t feel bad.  I’m doing it too!

Since my stint in psychoanalysis, I’ve avoided psychiatrists (yuck!  I’m not that sick!) but from time to time I have consulted a psychic or two.  Usually, they don’t do as much harm as real shrinks, though a French psychic did rather cattily tell me that I was being punished for having considered drowning myself in the Seine river after — mon dieu, how to put this — stooping to folly?

To me, her diagnosis just didn’t sound accurate.  Given the way the social dance steps played out for women in those pre-feminist days, it was rational at least to have considered suicide as an option.  Heck, I’m a philosopher.  What was I supposed to do?  Think only good thoughts?

Recently a close woman friend, whose opinions I have reason to take seriously, suggested that the neuropathy, by keeping me relatively housebound, forces me to get my remaining life tasks completed before my Golden Years run out.

That’s conceivable, but personally I think not.  I’d get my work done even better if I could at least be allowed to take a daily stroll in the woods.  I love the woods.

So, what’s my idea of the part played by my mind in my very own mind/body problem? 

You’ve heard of the life review?  It’s the complete, 3-D replay of the sequence of one’s reactions, choices and interactions over a lifetime.  Reportedly, it’s been undergone by many individuals who’ve been revived after clinical death.

Well, I don’t wait for clinical death.  I do life reviews fairly frequently – often finding that my life looks different this time from the way it looked the last time I did a review.  Subsequent experience has provided a wider perspective.

So I did a life review guided by the following question: What in me had opened the door to neuropathy?  Of course, you might object that, on such a question, I’m no oracle.

Quite right.  Now,

 please, please, please,

take me to your oracle!

It was quite interesting to see how different previously familiar scenes looked now, viewed through the lens of that question.

It seemed to me that I’d come into this life with an underlying sense that anti-semitism had a global reach and a highly consequential subjective depth.  Given that founding orientation, the experiences that seemed to tell on my neurons most painfully were the ones where fellow Jews delivered the hits.  They weren’t the worst or the only hitters.  They just hurt most.

Taking my life adventures as a whole, the strategy I’d followed was to do the best I could in the combats – the victories and defeats — of my life.  I would try to pull the strands of meaning from the maelstrom and to move on.   I never wrote anything I hadn’t lived or at least put to some relevant test.  I tried not to hold on to opinions if they came to seem untenable.  I tried not to lie.

In fact, as this life review led me to notice, I really had suffered quite a lot.  More than I generally like to recall.  But also learned a fair amount, wrote about whatever I’d learned if it seemed of wider interest … and moved on.

But my body didn’t always move on.  Not 100 percent.  I tried to cure the curable hurts.  And the incurable ones?  They had to be stored somewhere.  So the problem is to get them out of storage.

And that’s all I can say about

Abigail’s mind/body problem.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” ( where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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5 Responses to In Quest of Healing

  1. Pingback: In Quest of Healing - Philosophy News

  2. Gabriele von Sivers-Sattler says:

    you mention the mind/body connection – have you come across the classic books of Dr. John Sarno

  3. Charis2889 says:

    Thank you for sharing to clearly and easily (well, maybe not so easily) your mind-body journey and some of your life-review. Sorry we missed your last SoCal trip … the next time, for sure …

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