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Life Letters

Paul Tournier, MD

  Pagosa Springs, Colorado
April, 16, 2001

I recently walked into the Methodist Thrift Shop in Pagosa Springs, Colorado, looking for an old-fashioned windup alarm clock. Not finding one, I browsed through the used books section and found “The Meaning of Persons,” by Paul Tournier. I had owned a copy many years ago, but it had disappeared. It was like meeting an old friend. I latched onto the copy and gladly paid the $2.50.

It had been 25 years since I had first read “The Meaning of Persons.” It was like reading it for the first time. The book had not changed, but I had. The general theme is that there is a difference between the real person in us and the masks we have learned to wear. It was a real wakeup call. Discovering who we are and remaining true to the real “us” in us is a lifetime challenge.

After I finished reading “The Meaning of Persons,” I looked for other books by the same author on my bookshelf. “The Healing of Persons” had been another one of my favorites. What incredible wisdom this Swiss physician has shared with his patients and reading audience! I thought to myself, “Why bother to write more epistles about healing, when Dr. Tournier has done such an outstanding job linking our physical health to our emotional, mental, and spiritual health? From now on I will direct my readers to the writings of Paul Tournier.” Although his books are out of print, they can still be obtained through libraries and the Internet.

A few days later, someone called from Dallas who wanted our help in sorting through some problems. Normally, I might have looked at the calendar to see what dates were available. Instead, I directed the person to try a local library and check out “The Healing of Persons.” There is a treasure chest filled with healing in the writings of Paul Tournier. If you agree, do please contact the publisher, Harper & Row, and encourage them to reprint Paul Tournier's books.

I am one of these people who can get very enthusiastic. When I discover something that speaks to my heart, I spare no effort or expenses in introducing others to what I have discovered. There are so many things competing for our attention that unless someone says, “Why don't you stop for just a moment and take a look at this,” we will overlook the very keys that can unlock our prison doors.

Chances are that only a handful of people will ever read these words, that only a handful of people will take the trouble to go the library and follow up on my recommendation. But that does not discourage me. I have done my job by bringing a new name or an old friend to your attention. God used a windup alarm clock to slow down my footsteps and direct me to a thrift shop. For this newsletter to find its way into your letterbox and for you to take the time to read it, is equally miraculous. I have learned to depend on angels to direct my life and to direct my words to the right person at the right time.

After saying all of this, let me quote a few passages from "The Healing of Persons" by Dr. Paul Tournier. The book was first published in French in 1940.

From the chapter “Medicine and Life” - There are personal problems in every life. There are secret tragedies in every heart. “Man does not die,” a doctor has remarked. “He kills himself.” If we talk so little about the problems which trouble us most, it is usually because we have lost hope of ever finding a solution to them. (page 5)

“Treat the patient, not the disease.” Such is the precept our masters teach us, and which we are reminded of every day by medical practice. Take two patients suffering from the same disease: One makes a rapid recovery, while the other is handicapped by some secret worry which has destroyed his will to live.

But to treat the patient and not the disease means penetrating into these personal problems, which our patients often hide from us in order to keep them hidden from themselves. (pages 6-7)

From the chapter “The Knowledge of Many” - Man is not just a body and a mind. He is a spiritual being. It is impossible to know him if one disregards his deepest reality. This is indeed the daily experience of the doctor. No physiological or psychological analysis is sufficient to unravel the infinitely complex skein of a human life. He sees how little his patients understand themselves, as long as they do not examine themselves before God; how apt they are to close their eyes to their own faults; how their good will is held back by circumstances, discouragement, and habit; how little effect his advice can have in reforming a person's life when the patient's mind is torn by inner conflict. (page 55)

From the chapter “Temperaments” - Creative imagination, calm thought, artistic production, the gentle things of life, things of the heart and the soul have been strangled in this race to achieve and produce more and more. And humanity has no idea what to do with all its material wealth and all the products of its activity. It suffers from sterility amidst its granaries. It has looked for profits and can no longer sell. For in a civilization in which action and technical progress have become the norm, money is king, and material return the only criterion of value.

And our mental hospitals are filled with people whose natures are artistic, gentle, and intuitive, crushed by the struggle to live, incapable of keeping up with the speed of the men of action, incapable of earning their living, defeated by the wounds inflicted on the sensitivity, stultified by their feelings of inferiority and social uselessness, discouraged and lacking faith in themselves. (page 73)

From the chapter “Conflicts” - It is clear that what I have just said about matrimonial conflicts could also be said about all the other conflicts which divide individuals and groups. There are first the conflicts between parents and children. In a considerable number of clinical observations it is noticeable what a lasting effect such childhood conflicts can have on a person's life. This is true not only from a psychological point of view. The need to defend their independence against very authoritarian parents, to assert their liberty beneath the weight of convention imposed on them by parents who are too bourgeois, or the need to evade their vigilance if they are too jealous, leads children into the worst kinds of alimentary, moral, and social faults. Others are the victims of the unorthodox ideas of their parents in regard to food and to abstinence. The reader will find in this book several cases in which a parent-child conflict has dominated a person's whole life. It is almost always the consequence of the parents' own personal problems. (pages 92-93)

From the chapter “Overwork and Idleness” - There are more intellectual and spiritual gluttons than one might think-that is to say, people who make excessive and undisciplined use even of the best things. I am thinking at the moment of a friend with whom I had conversations over a period of several months. He was a Jew. He was seeking Christ. But our long discussions were getting us nowhere. One day he came back to see me and told me he had found Christ. He had met a Christian who had simply told him that he was an intellectual glutton. Examining his conscience, he had suddenly seen that his inexhaustible religious discussions, however interesting they might be, were nothing but a kind intemperance and they were blocking the road to his conversion. (page 114)

From the chapter “Synthesis in Medicine” - Endocrinology has rendered the greatest service to us. It has revealed the connection that exists between psychic tendencies and the secretions of the ductless glands. But it would be wrong to think of this connection as working in one direction only, that is to say, to look upon the glandular disorder as the organic cause, and disorder in the character as the psychic consequence. It is in this way that many people draw from science the reassuring thought that they cannot help this or that fault of character, since it originates in a defect of the thyroid or ovary.

It is an unscientific assumption of materialist philosophy which supposes that material facts-anatomical and physiological-are the cause, and that moral (psychological and spiritual) facts are the consequences, and not the other way about. (page 132)

From the chapter “Suffering” - To fight against suffering is to be on God's side. On the other hand, as I have shown in Part One, suffering is often bound up with our disobedience and our wrong modes of life, so that in order to strive effectively against suffering we must brings souls to Christ, who delivers them from their faults, who in order to heal the paralytic said to him: “Your sins are forgiven” (Matt. 9:2)

Despite his best efforts, however, the doctor does not cure all suffering. Despite most telling spiritual experiences, there subsist in every man's life sufferings which God does not relieve. So to St. Paul, who thrice asked God to remove his “thorn in the flesh,” God answered: “My grace is sufficient for you” (II Cor. 12:9). And Christ himself, without sin as he was, was not spared suffering. In the Garden of Gethsemane he accepted the supreme suffering when he said to his Father: “Not my will, but thine, be done.” (Luke 22:42).

So the Christian answer to suffering is acceptance. Through acceptance, suffering bears spiritual fruit - and even psychic and physical fruit as well. Resignation is passive. Acceptance is active. Resignation abandons the struggle against suffering. Acceptance strives without backsliding, but also without rebellion. There is no greater testimony to the power of Christ than that which shines from the bed of a sick person who miraculously accepts suffering. There is no attitude more impossible for man-without the miraculous intervention of Christ - than the acceptance of suffering. (pages 142-143)

Rebellion against our lot always separates us from God, and thus deprives us of his help, which is the only thing that can accomplish the miracle of making us accept our suffering. (page 149)

Accepting suffering, bereavement, and disease does not mean taking pleasure in them, steeling oneself against them, or hoping that distractions or the passage of time will make us forget them. It means offering them to God so that he can make them bring forth fruit. One does not arrive at this through reasoning, nor is it to be understood through logic; it is the experience of the grace of God. (page 155)

From the chapter “Positive Health” - The biblical message of acceptance is the only possible answer to the great problem of suffering. From the miracles that are wrought through acceptance, it can be seen that spiritual strength is the greatest strength in the world. It can transform both peoples and individuals. It alone can ensure victory over the negative forces of selfishness, hate, fear, and disorder, which destroy peoples and undermine the health of individuals. It alone gives them the joy, energy, and zeal needed in the daily battle for life and for the defense of health.

There are three suicides a day in Switzerland. Putting men's lives in order, helping them to win victories over themselves, to control their passions, to refresh their strength through daily contact with God - all this does not only mean reducing the risk of their falling ill, it also means helping them to find the source of “positive health.”

Health is not the mere absence of disease. It is a quality of life, a physical, psychical, and spiritual unfolding, and exaltation of personal dynamism. (page 185)

From the chapter “The Laws of Life” - “Medicine is the art of giving advice on how to live.” (page 203)

From the chapter “Confession” - If I look honestly into my own heart, and into the tragic situation of humanity, which my vocation as a doctor allows me to do day after day, I see that behind all “personal problems” there lies, quite simply, sin. (page 225)

It is a fact that hypersensitive people I have seen have had a negative attitude toward their sensitiveness, the source of so much suffering for them. They cannot accept it until they see it as a talent which God is commanding them to put to use, so that it may bring a return in the form of tact, kindness, understanding, sympathy, artistic creation, and intuition. One of my teachers used to say, “Nervous people have to put up with extra suffering in life, but they also get more out of life.” As soon as a hypersensitive person becomes aware of the special vocation in the world of people such as he, he is enabled to accept his nerves. And even if he is not understood by those around him, he feels that he is understood by God. (pages 241-242)

The editions and translations of Paul Tournier's books are too numerous to list. “A Doctor's Casebook in the Light of the Bible” has been translated from French into English, German, Finnish, Japanese, Dutch, Swedish, Spanish, Norwegian and Italian. Other books have been published in sixteen languages and approximately two million copies. Other titles translated and published in English are:

  • The Adventure of Living
  • Escape from Loneliness
  • Learning to Grow Old
  • Marriage Difficulties
  • The Person Reborn
  • A Place for You
  • The Strong and the Weak
  • What is a Name?
  • The Whole Person in a Broken World
  • Guilt and Grace.

If you have any of these titles and would like to place them in our library, we would be delighted to accept them. We have many visitors who enjoy perusing the library in “The Upper Room” guest apartment. We invite you to be one of those visitors.

    Peter D. Laue

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