When I was a kid, one of my favorite hobbies was adding to my rock collection. In the summer, I went on road trips with my family to explore the national parks, and at every gift shop, I always gravitated towards the bin of tumbled stones. To me, this was a treasure trove. I looked at all of the stones and was mesmerized by their vibrant colors — from emerald green to magenta to opaque purple. I rummaged through them noisily with both hands to ensure I didn’t miss any of the best ones and felt their collective weight. Ultimately, I selected a few of my favorites and placed them in a soft black velvet pouch.
At home, I kept my rock collection safely tucked away in a special wooden box under my bed. Predictably, as the years passed, I spent less and less time studying the various rocks I had collected. By the time I was in high school, I hardly ever took the time to marvel at the sleekness of black obsidian or bismuth’s iridescent rainbow-like properties.
Then, a few weeks ago, a colleague of mine brought a piece of natural green quartz to work. She placed it on her desk next to her picture frame and a couple of other mementos. Sometimes she would take a few moments throughout the day to hold it and turn it over in her hand. I could tell that it wasn’t just a decoration — it meant something to her. At first, I was surprised that a fellow health care provider I respected so much would attribute such significance to a rock. As we go through training, we are taught (if not explicitly at least implicitly) that there is little, if any, value in forms of complementary and alternative medicine such as crystal healing.
Around the same time though, I was reading “Kitchen Table Wisdom” by Rachel Naomi Remen. In one of the anecdotes, she describes a ritual she suggests to patients who are about to undergo significant medical interventions such as radiation, chemotherapy or surgery. First, the patient is asked to find a stone that fits in their hand and then gather together with a group of their closest friends and family members. Sitting in a circle, the guests are invited to share a story to help bolster the patient’s spirits for the trial ahead. People may share about a time when they faced a crisis of their own, or when they too experienced some form of loss or illness. Each person holds the stone as they speak. Then, after the guest shares how they survived such challenges, they identify one quality that helped them make it through. Finally, each person speaks directly to the patient and tells them, “I put determination (or humor, or faith, or whatever quality they chose) into this stone for you.” Afterward, the patient takes the stone with them to the hospital as a reminder of all of these people lifting them up with strength and support, love and beauty, hopes and prayers.
It’s a beautiful ritual, but how important can a stone really be? Despite my own interest in collecting rocks from an early age, I’ve always been under the impression that at the end of the day, a rock is just a rock. Yet to the contrary, Remen describes a time when a patient’s stone was lost and a surgeon “even had the staff go through the hospital laundry in search of [it].” She continues, “I asked him why he had done this and he laughed and said, ‘Listen, I have seen people do badly after surgery and even die when there was no reason for it other than the fact that they believed they wouldn’t make it. I need all the help I can get.’”
Perhaps rocks and crystals and stones (and the varied meanings they hold) can be more nourishing than we know. Ultimately, we could all use a little help staying grounded in what matters most.
Shannon Casey is a physician assistant.
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