The Myth of Normal

by Gabor Maté

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Chapters 25–27 Summary

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Last Updated on November 15, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 990

Chapter 25: Mind in the Lead: The Possibility of Healing

Maté defines healing as “a natural movement toward wholeness. . . a direction, not a destination.” It is not the same as self-improvement and more closely resembles self-retrieval. It is not the same as a cure, which denotes the complete absence of disease. Healing begins with the acknowledgement of suffering; looking “life in the face” as Nadezhda Mandelstam puts it. This is not an intellectual exercise; intelligence is at its best when informed by emotion.

The Buddha taught that everything is made by the mind. Neuroscience and psychology show how the mind is created by the world, and that world was created by other minds. However, even in the face of this grim truth, the Buddha’s dictum remains true: if one cannot control the world that created the mind, one can at least exercise agency over the mind that creates the world and will therefore shape the future.

Sue Hanisch had one of her legs blown off and the other severely injured by a bomb at Victoria Station in London. The man next to her was between her and the bomb and was killed instantly, leaving her with guilt over her own survival. Thirteen years after this, she was able to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. In one of her expeditions to Africa, she was helped by former members of the Irish Republican Army, the terrorist group that had planted the bomb.

The author describes his own encounter with Bettina Göring, grandniece of Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, who told him about her inherited trauma and how she had managed to forgive herself by coming to terms with her great-uncle’s monstrous crimes. He also spoke with Edith Eger, whose parents died alongside his own grandparents at Auschwitz. She chose to forgive Hitler in a journey of healing which is particularly inspiring for the author, because the trauma she suffered was so extreme. Anyone can begin to heal with a change of perspective.

Chapter 26: Four A’s and Five Compassions: Some Healing Principles

No one can provide a roadmap for healing, but the author offers four principles which he says have provided a useful guide for many people.

Authenticity is difficult to define, like love, but also like love, you know when you experience it. It begins in self-acceptance and is most often conspicuous by its absence when you experience anxiety, regret, depression, or fatigue.

Agency is the power to take responsibility for oneself and exercise personal choice and freedom. It includes the ability to ignore both one’s conditioning and the dictates of the culture.

Anger can be toxic when it is suppressed or amplified. As a natural, healthy response, however, it is an effective boundary defense and protection against stress.

Acceptance is not resignation or complacency but a simple recognition of the truth. One can accept that certain conditions exist without deciding to tolerate them.

The author follows these “four As” with five forms of compassion. These are:

  • Ordinary human compassion. This involves empathy, the ability to relate to the feelings of others, as its central characteristic.
  • The compassion of curiosity and understanding. This consists of asking, without judgment, why people behave as they do.
  • The compassion of recognition. This allows people to recognize the problems and flaws of others in themselves.
  • The compassion of truth. This involves facing difficult truths for the sake of long-term healing.
  • The compassion of possibility. This involves understanding that there is more to any person than the façade they present to the world and attempting to imagine or discern latent qualities in people.

Chapter 27: A Dreadful Gift: Disease as Teacher

Some people, such as Will Pye, author of Blessed with a Brain Tumor, are able to view their illness as a gift and as a source of healing in itself rather than something to be healed from. Julia, who has rheumatoid arthritis, says that she has beautiful conversations with her ailment, which has taught her powerful lessons about acceptance and the toxicity of holding onto anger. The psychologist Richard Schwartz has pioneered a type of therapy called Internal Family Systems (IFS), which focuses on how people respond to certain life events, such as the abuse Julia experienced in childhood. Schwartz says that illness can be a way in which the body calls people back to the “unique and genuine essence” they have repressed.

Donna Zmenak was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2003. Her gynecologist told her she should undergo a radical hysterectomy, which she refused. She followed a cleansing diet, working with another doctor, but the cancer continued to spread. She focused on how she was going to live, rather than how long, and sought out the advice of Cheryl Canfield, a cancer survivor and the author of a book called Profound Healing. Her cancer went into remission and soon the biopsies showed no trace of it. Even then, the gynecologist Zmenak was seeing at the time told her that she was not healed, and the author wonders why he is not curious about what happened to her, though he says that such an attitude is normal in the medical profession.

Dr. Erica Harris was a successful sports chiropractor when she found herself suffering from repeated serious illness and was diagnosed with AML, acute myeloid leukemia. She underwent a long series of medical procedures and was finally advised to enter a palliative care facility, where she might expect to live for two months. Instead, she stayed at home and went into remission after changing her lifestyle and breaking “a lifelong pattern of repression.” According to the Harvard psychiatrist Dr. Jeffrey Rediger, this type of transformation of identity seems to be the key to such “miraculous” recoveries as Harris’s and Zmenak’s. In a culture which turns resolutely away from death and aging, some people have managed to face their disease and learn from it, allowing them to be healed even when they cannot be cured.

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Chapters 22–24 Summary


Chapters 28–30 Summary