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Reflections from Our Founder

Reflections: Listening Harder to Earthworms

June 12, 2024

Last month, my wife, Sue, and I attended an event at the Kent Cultural Alliance in the rural Maryland county where we spend much of our time. The evening featured three resident artists who had all worked under the theme “LAND” as they explored agriculture, soil, family farms, and our local communities. 

One of the artists, Austen Camille, connected with a fourth-generation Kent County farmer, whose approach on his 13,000-acre Harborview Farms includes growing cover crops that support the health of his soil. In a poetry collection that came out of her residency, “Listening to a Field through the Window of a Truck,” Camille describes the abundant sounds of nature bursting from those crop-covered fields – and the relative silence of neighboring farms, cleared and plowed in neat, straight rows for planting. The quiet made her feel as if she had put on headphones.  

Her art reminded me of my medical training in Ireland, where gifted teachers explained that if you really – really – listen to your patients, they’ll tell you what’s wrong 90% of the time. 

The question seems to be the same whether we’re standing on a farm or in front of a patient: are we listening hard enough to the interconnected systems around us or fully hearing the lessons they have to share? 

In Kent County, it’s easy to understand soil as a literal grounding element of human health. Some 57 percent of the county is prime farmland, built on what a recent [2022] report called “a gift of immeasurable value.” We understand (I even have a t-shirt declaring it!) the paths that lead from healthy soil to healthy food to healthier people.   

Throughout the Nova Institute’s history, soil, food, and agricultural and culinary landscapes have been central themes of our work. We’ve led kids in Baltimore to dig their hands into the rich, dark dirt of a garden. We developed Five Times a Feast, a free multi-week program focused on healthy, nutritious – and easy – home cooking. We helped young people learn to use spices and herbs to taste the difference of a wholesome, flavorful meal through the Spice MyPlate program. And we created a first-of-its-kind culinary medicine training as a core requirement for first- and second-year medical students, sharing a more connected view of food and health. 

In recent months, I’ve been excited about the listening taking place at our Nova Campfires, including one this spring on Food Justice. With colleagues from around the world, we talked about how the rising wave of ultra-processed, low-nutrient food is affecting the health of individuals, communities, and entire ecosystems. And we dug deep, recognizing that while emerging drugs can help treat chronic diseases such as diabetes and obesity, we’ll never find better cures without understanding and addressing the interconnected policies and practices that brought us to this place.

In one of her poems from the LAND residency, Camille describes looking for the earthworms burrowing into and enriching the soil at Harborview Farms. She wrote: 

     We didn’t see any worms today, 
     but the way we moved over the field was with an awareness
                   of worms, of their homes and their particular 
     sensory perspective, 

     and I felt like my body was learning a new way to listen. 

These sounds – the earthworms beneath your feet, children giggling at the feel of dirt crumbing between their fingers, the “aha” of medical students understanding how food might be part of the prescription, and the debates of policymakers allocating precious funding to farming or healthcare – are pieces of the interconnected systems that shape our individual and collective health. 

Now we need to make sure we’re listening carefully enough, building the movement, and promoting the kind of change that leads to sustainable, whole-person health.

Professor Brian Berman, MD
President and Founder, Nova Institute for Health
Professor Emeritus Family and Community Medicine, University of Maryland School of Medicine

Healing is facilitated through safety, persistence, and trust.

  • Persistence: “People did not simply progress through this sequence and experience healing. The healing journey was a recursive, back and forth process. They found helpers, used the skills/resources that those helpers provided, found other helpers that provided more resources and used those skills and resources. As this process continued, people experienced a gradual amelioration of their suffering. Although many despaired at times, all demonstrated the quality of persistence—they refused to give up.”
  • Safety & Trust: “To connect to helpers, it was essential for people to feel safe in those relationships and able to trust that the person would be a helper and not a barrier to healing. Persons whose wounds included a violation of trust were especially careful about testing the safety of new relationships.”

Resources support us as we heal. They include reframing, responsibility, and positivity. “Making connections enabled participants to acquire and refine resources and skills that were essential in their healing journey. People also brought their own personal strengths to the journey.”

  • Reframing: “A particularly important skill was the ability to reframe—that is to look at suffering through a different lens.” This does NOT mean minimizing trauma or pain, but rather it often means the opposite: understanding what happened was wrong, unfair, or uncontrollable and that we are not to blame for it.
  • Responsibility: While we don’t have control over what happened to us, we are the only ones who can help ourselves heal. “A third essential resource that people acquired or refined was the ability to take an appropriate amount of responsibility for their healing journeys. They participated actively in the process of healing. Once again, some participants already had developed this skill, and some acquired or refined it from their helpers.”
  • Positivity: “Another resource that people acquired or refined during their healing journey was choose to be positive—that is to have some optimism about their situation.” People have varying predispositions to positivity. In the study, positivity was important in helping people heal. This doesn’t mean a toxic positivity, but rather simply finding some good in life and feeling hopeful about our situations.

“Connection to others was an essential part of all the healing journeys.” Humans are social creatures, and even the most introverted of us need close relationships. Friends and family add meaning and value to life and help support us, in good times and bad. 

When we experience relational trauma, relationships can feel scary, but reestablishing safety and trust in relationships is where the healing happens. (To be clear, we do not mean reestablishing safety and trust with abusers, but rather finding other healing relationships.) 

“When safety and trust had been established, people were able to connect with helpers. The nature of the behaviours of helpers that fostered healing ranged from small acts of kindness to unconditional love.”

  • “Moving from being wounded, through suffering to healing, is possible. It is facilitated by developing safe, trusting relationships and by positive reframing that moves through the weight of responsibility to the ability to respond.”
  • “Relationships with health professionals were among these but were not necessarily any more important to the healing journey than other kinds of helpers, which included family members, friends, spirituality and their God, pets, support groups, administrators, case workers and supervisors.”

Healing probably means different things to different people, but one definition that emerged from the study is: “The re-establishment of a sense of integrity and wholeness.” 

Healing was an emergent property that resulted from each individuals’ complex healing journey, a result of bridged connections between resources and relationships. “…they gradually found relief from suffering and began to exhibit emergent characteristics: a sense of hope, self-acceptance, and a desire to help others—the immediate precursors to healing.”

 In varying degrees, “they were able to transcend their suffering and in some sense to flourish.” 

  • Helping Others: We find meaning in helping others. “Understanding that suffering gives the strength and experience to help others in similar situations.”
  • Hope: We begin to have hope that we will not always feel this bad. A Crohn’s patient said, “I think gradually I realized that I was going to feel better. I did have days when I actually didn’t vomit, when I did feel better. And I think gradually I came to believe that maybe I could have a normal life again.”
  • Self-Acceptance: We see our inherent value and understand that we are not to blame for our suffering. A participant living with HIV said, “I’m really proud of myself. I think that now I still want to live. I don’t want to die, and I really love myself a lot. I have a lot of comfort in myself.”

Suffering is the ongoing pain from wounding. 

There is some debate about whether people always experience suffering on the path to healing.

Wounding happens when we experience physical or emotional harm. It can stem from chronic illness or by physical or psychological trauma for which we do not have the tools to cope, or a combination of those factors. 

“The degree and quality of suffering experienced by each individual is framed by contextual factors that include personal characteristics, timing of their initial or ongoing wounding in the developmental life cycle and prior and current relationships.”

Characteristics: How predisposed someone may be to wounding/how many tools and resources someone may have to deal with trauma/illness.

Lifestages: Developmental timing plays an important role in the impact of trauma — young children often do not have the same resources as older adults.

Relationships: Relationships can provide solace and support for those suffering, while lack of healthy relationships can prolong suffering.