Stories we’ve internalized about healing may direct our approach to patient care. Find the one that resonates most with you.
What is the first story you can remember that taught you about healing? How does this first story shape your medical practice today? Recently, I led a healthcare and literature discussion on Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer’s “Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants.” In this text, Kimmerer critiques scientific methods that become self-limiting when they don’t fully contemplate the value and functions of relationality between people and plants. She illustrates the many ways Indigenous agricultural practices can provide new scientific insights rooted in traditional wisdom. A central metaphor is the sweetgrass plant itself that Kimmerer shows us thrives in environments where traditional harvesting methods are used and don’t deplete the available yield. This practice, she teaches us, can be understood as an honorable harvest.
While her text uses the language of botany, Kimmerer’s discussions of relationality also hold vital insights for medicine. Kimmerer shows us how our patterns of creating scientific frameworks are based in our worldviews and she reminds us that our worldviews are based in origin stories. She writes,
“Like Creation stories everywhere, cosmologies are a source of identity and orientation to the world. They tell us who we are. We are inevitably shaped by them no matter how distant they may be from our consciousness.”
Accordingly, Kimmerer teaches us that in one Indigenous creation story of the world as Turtle Island, the central character, Skywoman, is an “Ancestral gardener, a cocreator of the good green world that would be the home of her descendants.” The Turtle Island story thus inspires the reciprocity of practice in an honorable harvest. By comparing Skywoman’s story of thriving in a garden to the biblical Eve’s story of banishment, Kimmerer shows how a different starting point for stories about people and plants results in different historical relations to the natural world.
While Kimmerer emphasizes agriculture in this comparison, we can reflect on the how legacies of origin stories inflect our understandings and our desire to heal. While some of our origin stories (whether religious, cultural, familial, or personal) and their adaptations can give us purpose, others may create barriers to healing. When we’re faced with systemic institutional biases and injustices, imagining practical pathways for transformation can be more difficult than it sounds. The same scripts repeat themselves with similar words and goals that don’t create the change that is most needed, and we are often stuck.
If we’re going to find practical ways to heal patterns of inequity in healthcare, we need to update our scripts and the assumptions they’re built on when they create barriers to our growth toward an ethics of care.
The following reflective tasks can help us better understand the stories that drive our work in healthcare and see if those stories need to be revised or replaced with new narratives. These meditations can also help us find the places we need to rethink the way we prioritize equity and the way we arrive at honorable results in our work.
1. Describe the worldview that is the foundation to your medical work.
2. List the stories (religious, cultural, familial, personal) that direct the way you seek to heal.
3. List your top three motivating values in healthcare. Are these reflected in your worldview and influencing stories? If not, consider imagining and writing a new narrative to guide your work.
This piece expresses the views solely of the author. It does not necessarily represent the views of any organization, including Johns Hopkins Medicine.