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Being a Wounded Healer

Richard Rohr teaches, “we don’t seek spiritual awareness to help escape the pain of the world, but to gain the capacity to feel the pain and live in solidarity with it.”

We’d all like to escape the pain and suffering in life. And, I suspect that many people believe that spirituality, or perhaps religion, is supposed to take your pain away. Yes, God brings comfort. Yes, God works within us to help us get up when we’ve been knocked down by life. Yes, trusting God and the path of life can bring us relief from despair, but it isn’t a magic fix. God doesn’t wave a magic wand and poof we’re fine again.

Nor does believing in God mean that we will live a pain free life, that we won’t struggle, or that if we have enough faith our favorite Aunt Mary won’t die. It would be nice, but we all know life doesn’t work that way.

Instead, the spiritual path gives us the strength and courage to walk through the pain, facing it, working through it and accepting it as part of our journey, a part that helps us to grow in wisdom, empathy, compassion and understanding.

A friend asked me about a month ago, “What is the purpose of suffering?” I love it when I get the easy questions. Oy! So, here’s my struggle… I don’t like the question. Suggesting there is a purpose to suffering, or (here’s a phrase that really grates on my nerves) that it “happens for a reason,” makes it sound like God causes the suffering so that we’ll learn something. Logically, this theory has to bear out in every case which means God decides when and how one dies, God is behind abuse, hatred, oppression, the virus, the tornadoes, etc. That makes God fairly sadistic, in my opinion, and I've never experienced that kind of God.

Given that God is not a magic genie, and the spiritual path is not about escaping pain and struggle, I prefer a different question; “What can I learn from this suffering, and therefore make it redemptive?”

The redemption of our suffering becomes clear when we are able to walk with others through their suffering in a healthy, helpful way. This is what it means to be a wounded healer.

Everyone can be a wounded healer, but the key here is that we must first walk through our own suffering and come out the other side, before we can truly help others in their healing.

We can transform our wounds and help others to heal, or we can choose not to transform our wounds and simply wound others – unintentionally, of course, but it will happen. If we do not work on our own stuff, our hurt and pain will come spewing out in negative ways directed at others when they inadvertently touch or trigger a still tender part in our hearts. In addition, if we try to reach out to another before we’ve done the work, we run the risk of making the situation about us, or taking on too much of another’s burden when it isn’t ours to bear.

The role of a wounded healer is simply to walk alongside with love and support. Henri Nouwen was so right when he wrote, “Pain suffered alone feels very different from pain suffered alongside another.” 

This week I came across something wonderful written by John of the Cross: 

I saw the river over which every soul must pass

to reach the kingdom of heaven,

and the name of that river was suffering:

and I saw the boat which carries souls across the river,

and the name of that boat was love.

Again, this quote does not mean that God is causing the suffering, simply that suffering is part of life; however, we can trust that Love - of the Divine, of family, friends and community - carries us through.

Joyce Rupp talks about how this river can be a metaphor for the transforming effect of suffering. Just as a river slowly, but surely, sculpts canyons, and twists and turns, and passageways, so the river of suffering carves something new in our lives. It creates passageways through which we can journey into "something as yet unlived."

When we’ve done the emotional, spiritual and psychological work on our suffering, our transformation becomes a gift of empathy to others. We all have the capacity for empathy. However, if we live too much in our head, if we are aloof and emotionally removed from situations, if we bury our own suffering so deep that we can’t touch it, then it becomes difficult to respond with empathy and compassion.

Oncology physician Raymond Barfield was asked, “Do you think you can teach medical students empathy?” Barfield responded, I think humans are inclined to feel empathy, but empathy can be crushed. Something seems to happen in medical school and residency that dulls our sense of empathy. It’s dulled by discussing illness and interventions in ways that don’t acknowledge patients and physicians as people. It’s dulled by the volume of suffering encountered in the course of training. It’s dulled by mere fatigue… The answer is yes. Physicians can remember what it is to be human.”

Sammy Rangel is the perfect example of a wounded healer. The abuse Sammy endured as a child began when he was three. Not only was he sexually assaulted by his mother’s brother, but his mother perpetrated horrible physical and emotional abuse on him for the entire time he was with her. She singled him out from his siblings and even turned them against him. Life was so bad he tried to hang himself at age 8, but the cord broke.

At age 11, he stood over her with a knife and almost killed her. Instead he took to the streets, joining a gang, drinking and smoking cocaine. He lost his first child at age 11. He went to prison the first time at age 17, just months after his daughter was born. Things didn’t get better from there. He used prison to become more powerful. In his words he, “went into prison a street punk and came out a brutal leader with a killer mentality.” 

In 1997, at about 25 years old, Rangel went into an intensive rehabilitation program at Racine Correctional Institution. A hardened gang member, his life slowly began to change. He had to talk about his life, and his mother, which unleashed a torrent of emotion.  He cried so much he said his face looked as if it was covered in bruises.  When a fellow inmate told him that he didn’t love his daughter because he hadn’t properly tried to find her, that hurt terribly because he knew it was the truth.

Rangel said, “In an instant I went from feeling self-pity to feeling remorse. In fact it was the first time I’d experienced empathy.”

Today, with a Masters in Social Work, Rangel consults with law enforcement agencies and other service providers on reducing violent extremism. He has written an autobiography, Fourbears: The Myths of Forgiveness, and is founder of Formers Anonymous, a self-help program for men and women looking to exit a lifestyle of crime and violence. Rangel is also co-founder and executive director of Life After Hate. 

To heal is to do the hard work of sitting with our pain, holding it with compassion, feeling it and working through it.

As Nouwen wrote, “When we learn to move through suffering, rather than avoid it, then we greet it differently. We become willing to let it teach us. We even begin to see how God can use it for some larger end. Suffering becomes something other than a nuisance or curse to be evaded at all costs, but a way into deeper fulfillment.”

To heal is to trust the Spirit to be with us as we heal. I don’t believe we can force “turning mourning into dancing” as the scripture says, but if we trust the process, trust the presence of the Divine, work with our brokenness, one day we will move forward. One day we will be able to dance again, smile again, love again, trust again, and see the redemptive nature of suffering as we walk with others in theirs as wounded healers.

Love & Light!