The Wounded Healer: In this day and age of personal growth, social media and the Internet, it’s almost impossible not to know the phrase. But what does it really mean?
First and foremost, let me say that this is NOT a life work on the idea, a fully formed and exhaustive thesis. These are simply early morning thoughts over coffee – the words I’d share if you were here at the moment and felt inclined to have a discussion. Gran was a chewer of thoughts, and I’ve inherited the tendency – so here goes.
To me, first and foremost, the phrase means someone who knows, because they’ve been there, either via personal or secondary experience. It reminds me of the idea of the Bodhisattva – we are all Bodhisattvas in our own way, or can be, if we will take up that work. Because whatever road we have walked, no one else can speak with our voice, no one else can touch with our fingerprints.
This doesn’t mean you – or I – can heal the world at large – at least not directly. Our experiences aren’t that wide, that far-reaching. But we can heal our own little corners, sweep our own front porches – in fact, that’s the most important place to begin. As the poem says, start close in. And notice I said “heal” – not cure. To make that claim is often a sure sign that we’re headed down the wrong road.
Henri Nouwen spoke about the core, inherent wound in each person – the fundamental woundedness of human nature. That’s worth thinking about – and more ink, over some other cuppa. Hallmark reminds of us of the same with a phrase now become trite: Be kind to every person. You never know what mountain they’re climbing.
It’s not a competition – who has the biggest scars? We may never be fully privy to another’s wounds. Even if we know the words, that doesn’t mean we’ll be able to feel them, no matter how hard we try to understand. Until we’ve personally experienced something, we have no idea what it feels like, and only our own arrogance will make us think we do, or make us rush to judge another’s journey as difficult or light.
As a wise friend once told me (and thank you for this) – the hardest thing a person has ever been through or done is *the hardest thing* that person has ever been through. Whatever it was, it tested them to the max, stretched them to their fullest.
Yes, that can vary, and what seems hard to me may be easy as pie to you. As we’ve come to understand, none of us start in the same place, or have the same responses or abilities or skills or have been gifted or learned or developed a personal aptitude to survival and resilience.
But to dismiss another’s wounds, whether callously or unconsciously, is to inflict an even deeper wound upon them, and to draw a clear line beyond which no trust will pass. Sometimes we don’t learn this clearly until life in some way bottoms us out enough to break us fully open, humbling us to ourselves and to those around.
When that happens, we may start noticing different things, paying attention more closely to suffering we’ve previously chosen or been privileged enough to ignore. “Not in my backyard” applies to much more than just environmental injustices. Or, alternatively, we may build even higher, thicker walls, shore up our defenses, shield more deeply than ever, spray on that Teflon, pull on the red cape, and keep going, oblivious to the price of our choices. Or, we may choose to go on the offensive. It can’t be me – so it must be you. Take that. I’ll get you first, and in so doing I’ll think I’m protecting myself.
Maybe. Maybe not. I won’t even attempt to say what is the best or most helpful response to your situation – because I’ve learned that that varies. Schoolyard bullies and bigots may need to be faced. And yet, as a recent storytelling session reminded me, never assume that standing up to someone once means it’s the only time you’ll ever have to do it. If they don’t know or understand about boundaries, you can talk ’til you’re blue in the face and nothing may change. Then again, fighting back may be just what they hoped for, who knows? But I digress – and this cup of coffee is getting cold. So back to the original line of thought:
Jung warned about not noticing when our own wounds are being triggered by the wounds of those around us, and winding up deeply enmeshed in the middle of what we thought would be a good experience for all.
I think of the story of a river, with all of us mere mortals out in it together, strung along in the current, some swimming, some floating, some struggling to stay above the line. Some upriver, some down, others stranded on top of the rocks in the middle of the stream, afraid or hesitant to dip a toe in the swirling waters. What if they don’t know how to swim? What if there are alligators?
In that river, you can’t save everyone. I can’t save everyone. Oftentimes, it’s all we can do to save ourselves. But every now and then, once we’ve found our own firm footing, or strengthened and lengthened our swimming stroke enough to take on emergency response duties, we can raise our heads from our own business, to be aware of those around us.
And yet even then, we cannot save everyone. I can’t reach the person five miles upstream or down, no matter how loud the call, no matter my own desire. But I can reach out my hand to those within arm’s length. In truth, it’s all I can do. It’s all you can do. To want or try to do more is all too often to do as Jung feared, taking on the healer archetype, as egos begin to inflate.
Well, one thing about it, all that hot air should float well, at least until our bubble bursts on the riverbank brambles. And at the same time we may remember that the wildly flinging arms and choking grasp of one in panic mode, *especially within arm’s reach, can still take us under if we’re not careful, as those fighting for their lives seem to take on super-human strength. Discernment. Know when and how to use your tools, to assist from a safer distance. Drowning in your attempt to lifeguard helps no one.
Some wounds never fully heal. I used to resist this idea. The idealist in me couldn’t accept it. Some wounds truly are incurable. They may scar over, they may age. But they may be just as raw right beneath the skin. I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. Sometimes we carry those wounds as reminders, as learnings. Their gift. We learn to work with them, to work around them. To protect them when necessary, to favor one side or the other. Not to overexert. To know our limits and observe others’. We can’t expect another to respect our limits, if we don’t know just what they are. Sometimes learning what that last line means is the start of yet another journey.
And yes, it is a journey. And the end goal, I’ve come to realize, isn’t perfection, much as that was my hope for a long time. I’ll never be perfect. (Movie Spoiler: Neither will you – sorry!) But I can learn to love and work with myself, my strengths and weaknesses, along the way, as the river flows around me. In so doing, hopefully I remember to be humble, to be gentle, to temper my impulse and emotion when they begin to swing too wildly. I learn the strength of my craft, which way she lists, which way she cuts through the water, how well she floats, and what freshwater barnacles may still be stuck to her bow.
As recently discussed with a friend, perhaps those of us who have approached life with the desire and intent to heal, to help and serve others – in whatever shape that takes – perhaps in our blindedness we may be the most wounded of all, and, as long as we’re unconscious, perhaps the most dangerous. Hence the compulsion to heal, to save, to fix, to protect – not realizing, at least not at first, that that compulsion comes from within – Perceval finally appearing before our inner Fisher King with those magic words: What ails thee?
Remembering what our teachers have taught us, as I reach out to those around me, may I stay humble enough to realize that sometimes when I’m offering to help, I may be the one who needs helping. Maybe that’s the only way it works – one interaction at a time, each learning from the other, hopefully strengthening each other, or at least growing from the experience. Who knows? May I remember that we are all imperfect, unknowing and unknown in so many ways. That sometimes perfection lies in accepting imperfection. And may I commit once again to doing my best, one day, one step at a time. To being real. That’s the best way I’ve found to live, to brave that current, to reach out to those around. One breath, one arm stroke, one handshake or hug at a time.
And now, after a night of floating on the current, it’s time to turn around and dive in yet again. May we each remember- and by that, I mean especially me.
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