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The Woman at the Well | Let Your Heart Guide Your Care


“Perhaps our real work, whether offering or seeking care, is to recognize that the healing relationship–the field upon which patient and practitioner meet–is, to use the words of the mythologist Joseph Campbell, a ‘self-mirroring mystery’–the embodiment of a singular human activity that raises essential questions about self, other, and what it means to heal thy self.”

–Saki Santorelli

There is an old Celtic tale about 5 sons of the Irish King Eochaid.  The sons were out hunting and got lost. They became tired and thirsty and set out in search of water. Each went a different way but all ended up, at different times, to the site of the woman beside the well.

The tale tells that the woman guarding this well was hideous.  Blacker than coal was every inch of her. Her hair was a grey, wiry mass of substance that compared to a wild horse’s tail.   This hair appeared only attached at the top surface of her scalp.  Her nose was awry and held wide nostrils. Her eyes were red and smoke blurred.  Her center was a wrinkled and freckled belly that overtook warped, crooked shins, garnished with massive ankles and a pair of capacious shovels for feet and knotted knees.  Long livid nails escaped her hands.

The oldest son of the King found the well first.  Standing before the hideous woman he asked for some water.  She told him the only way to get some water was to kiss her.  He refused, vowing he would rather die than kiss her and he turned away.  One after the other, three more brothers followed the path that led them to the woman at the well.  Each refused in repulsion to kiss the women and each of them turned away.

Finally the fifth brother, the one called Niall, took up the quest and found the woman at the well.  Upon hearing the terms of the bargain, he agreed without hesitation not only to kiss her but also to embrace her.  When he had willingly done so, right before his eyes, the guardian of the well transformed from the distorted, hideous figure to a beautiful woman.  The woman introduced herself as “the King of Tara, Royal Rule.”

She gave him the water and before he left the well she bestowed on him a blessing for himself and his children; that they should be graced with the Kingdom and highest of power.

You see, Niall also saw the woman as the hideous figure that his brothers had seen but unlike his brothers he was guided by his deep and gentle heart, offering her loving-kindness rather than revulsion.  Take note from this tale, the other brothers were not cursed for turning away from the woman…instead they just remained parched, hard and dry.

Heal Thy Self by Saki Santorelli
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I read this tale in the book, Heal Thy Self, Lessons on Mindfulness in Medicine by Saki Santorelli, EdD, MA.  This simple story spoke to me.  When I am at work I have a choice to see my patients in this very manner. They come to me in many states of disarray…from physically repulsive to pristine…from angry to kind…from delusional to intact…and so it goes.  I wish I could say I always acted like the fifth brother and embraced each patient with my loving and gentle spirit…but I can say that when I do embrace them this way, my heart is forever changed…and when I don’t it is also changed…

When I choose to see beyond the physical imperfections, mental imperfections and bad behavior of certain patients and go to them with a kind and gentle spirit of caring I can see the change in them almost immediately. Once we establish a kind exchange my heart is changed and I see them differently.  We are a culture of what we see… I pray that I will honor each patient as they are inside and that I will then be forever blessed.

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