Only the Wounded Can Heal

At a meeting for worship a Friend quoted the Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, as saying: "Only the wounded can heal." My heart quickened. I knew that these words, coming to me across the room from my friend, but more importantly, coming across 2,500 years from ancient Greece, would haunt me until I had explored their meaning, until I had worked through areas of woundedness in myself in the light of them.

I remembered Heraclitus—remembered that he was the first human being to enunciate the idea of evolution. "Everything flows," he said. "Nothing is permanent but change." I came home and got out my college Greek books.

Not much is known about him. He was born in Ephesus about 535 B.C.E. and lived about 60 years. He came of a noble family, so presumably he was well educated, but when asked about it once, he said, "I searched myself." He studied the sky, the movements of the Earth, various aspects of nature, and meditated on what he observed. High-minded, but also arrogant, he sounds at times like his contemporaries, the Hebrew prophets, when he berates his fellow Ephesians for their stupidity and stubbornness. Once he told them he would not talk further with them, he would rather play knuckle-bones with their children, for whom there was still some hope.

He wandered off for a time, lived as a hermit, subsisting on grass and herbs. His diet gave him dropsy and he came back to Ephesus to consult physicians. He decided he knew more than they and thought to cure himself by lying in a cowshed, believing the vapors of the dung would draw out the excess fluid from his body. This eccentric cure did not work and he died soon after.

Of his great life work, a three-volume treatise called On Nature, only about 150 sentences remain, some so fragmentary as to be obscure. But the main thrust of his thought is clear. Permanence is illusion. "You can not step into the same river twice," he said, "because other water is forever flowing over you." He believed fire to be the underlying substance of the universe. He said that the world was made neither by gods nor human beings but has always been and will always be "living fire, in measures being kindled, in measures going out." We all share a universal soul-fire, he thought.

He often used the word Logos, that same word that illuminates John’s Gospel. The Logos is the eternal wisdom, the primordial Word. Heraclitus said that though the Logos is common to us all, many of us live as though we think we have a wisdom of our own.

He saw that all things carry their opposites and are continually becoming their opposites. Day becomes night, and night gives way to morning. Summer becomes winter, and winter, spring. Cold things grow warm and warm things cool. Moisture dries out and parched things get wet. The healthy fall ill, and the wounded are healed. The only real condition is the transitional one of becoming. The gods, too, share with humankind this process of change. It is the nature of the universe for periods of growth and progress to be followed by periods when things break down.

Heraclitus sounds like another man writing about the same time, whose words are more familiar to us, although we know less about him. We do not even know his name, but his words got attached to our book of Isaiah. The historic references in the last chapters of Isaiah place them in a later century than the first 39 chapters by Isaiah, son of Amoz. We sometimes call this man Second Isaiah, and we sometimes call him "the suffering servant."

Out of the wisdom of Heraclitus the Ephesian, and Second Isaiah the Hebrew, I want to explore three ideas.

  • We are all wounded.
  • We all have within us regenerative powers of body, mind, and spirit.
  • Only those who have learned from their own wounds can help others heal themselves; or to condense the thought: Only the wounded can heal.

Heraclitus said that human beings are like lamps in the night. They are lighted, and then snuffed out. Second Isaiah uses another figure of speech:

All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness there of is as the flower of the field:
The grass withereth, the flower fadeth….

To be alive is to be vulnerable. From birth on, none is exempt from pain; nor can we go through life without losing some that we love, and ultimately coming to terms with our own death. These are big wounds we all share. And there are the little wounds: frustration, put-downs, loneliness, boredom, injustice, betrayals, neglect—or are they such small wounds? They eat away at us like cancer.

These wounds are common to all, including those of us who are well-fed, well-housed, well-clothed, well-to-do. We live in a peculiarly stricken age, however, when vast multitudes starve, drag out existence years on end in refugee camps, live under repressive regimes, die like sheep. Even in wealthy America, people are hungry, are discriminated against in housing and employment, receive unequal justice, are reduced to faceless numbers by bureaucracy. Our cities are full of lonely, bewildered, fearful, hopeless people, and bitter, alienated, violent people. We cannot walk the streets in safety or be secure in our dwellings. The elderly drag out their last years in miserable nursing homes. The children fail to learn in our public schools.

Our age is peculiarly stricken also because the possibility of the destruction of our planet, of our history, is a reality we all live with constantly, since Hiroshima. It makes for a peculiar hopelessness.

The words of Second Isaiah haunt us:

Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God…. (Isaiah 40:1)

How can we take on the world’s wounded when we are hurting ourselves?

Learning from Our Wounds

We begin with ourselves, for as long as our own wounds nag at us and demand our attention, we cannot hope to heal others, nor bring them comfort. Heraclitus speaks relevantly. He says human wisdom consists in speaking the truth and living according to nature. We all have within us regenerative powers of body, mind, and spirit. For them to operate we need to be honest with ourselves and disciplined enough to live sensibly.

Pain is often self-chosen. We have perhaps not been self-disciplined. Or we may need to escape drudgery or get out of a difficult situation. Experiencing our pain fully, not running away from it, may help us see how to give it up, how to plan our lives more sanely. Sometimes we choose pain for the joy that is set before us. Pain is often involved in bringing something new to birth. Heraclitus suggests that gods and humans share the process of creation and that the Eternal Creator(s) may suffer, even as we lesser creators suffer.

Not all pain is self-chosen. The upward thrust of evolution in the universe is constantly struggling against the dead weight of entropy. Things break down; there are random failures in the process of creation. At times Murphy’s law seems to operate: if anything can go wrong, it will! Things happen to us sometimes by chance, not because of some failure of ours, nor to punish us for misdeeds. My own experience and observation of others tell me that in a world of fallibility, violence, and indifference we should not be surprised that wounds come to us. Woundedness is part of the human condition.

We are free to learn, if we will. We can use the chronic disability, the unsought pain, the "thorn in the flesh," the incurable ailment to heighten our awareness of beauty and our sensitivity to suffering in others. We can use it as a challenge to our ingenuity to transcend our limitations. We can grow in depth through it as we seek ways to help God in the continuing process of creating a universe that is always breaking down. As Second Isaiah suggests, we can find beauty, even among the ashes of our hopes and plans, if we have the courage not to retreat from pain or to be dominated by it.

Second Isaiah says we need beauty instead of ashes, and also the oil of joy in place of mourning. How can we find such lubrication in a time of grief?

Grief, like pain, must be experienced, accepted in its overwhelming immensity, if we are to come out on the other side. Catharsis is necessary for healing.

Grief has its stages, its progression. Numbness when the mind refuses to accept the loss is followed by rebellion when the awful fact comes home. Why was I singled out? Then comes the reliving, trying to figure out how things might have been done differently: guilt, I believe, is a large part of grief. God seems to have withdrawn from us. We need friends who will let us talk, cry, get it all out. We need friends who have lived through grief and can function again.

In time we come to learn that we are not alone. We remember passages from the Bible. We find poetry, music, sculpture speaking to us across time and space. In time we may feel within us the continuing love, may sense the presence of the one we love, not in any supernatural way, but as warmth, like sunlight. Knowing the fragility of life, each day becomes a gift to be fully experienced. We are aware of the beauty in simple everyday things, and we find how precious are other members of our family still with us, other friends, strangers. We give thanks for the vitality, the grace, the hope, the courage of those who are young. And we find that deep, quiet joy has indeed begun to lubricate our frozen hearts. We grow through grief.

What of the lesser hurts that corrode our joy and keep us from fully functioning? Can they too help us grow? Most of them seem to come from other people. Beginning with birth, others hurt us, fail to understand our needs, frustrate us, interrupt us, put us down, accuse us unjustly, neglect to remember our special likes and special days, let us down. At least as much as we need sleep and food, we need to be understood, appreciated, cherished, made allowance for, told when we have done well. We need what Second Isaiah calls "the garment of praise." We need families, or meetings, or other small groups where we are accepted on our own terms, for our own sakes, where we are free to be ourselves.

We need creative imagination to walk in the shoes of those who hurt us and put us down. What is eating them? With what hurts and frustrations are they coping? Why must they put others down? Can we try to see them as God sees them? Can we find things to commend them for, ways to make them feel appreciated? Can we begin to cloth them in the garments of praise?

We can grow in grace. We can learn to use our pain, our grief, our frustrations for greater understanding, for transmutation into love. We were not singled out; we share the lot of humankind. Each of us is a legitimate part of creation—unique, irreplaceable. Life is a gift of time. Each day is precious.

Only the Wounded Can Heal

When we have experienced our own healing, we long to help our friends who suffer, who grieve, who struggle with problems too big for them. We wish, too, that we could find some way to respond to the world’s woundedness. Again, the words of Second Isaiah come to us very personally:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because the Lord hath anointed me
to preach good tidings to the meek,
to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of prison to them that are bound;
to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all that mourn:
to give them beauty for ashes,
the oil of joy for mourning,
the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness. . . .
(Isaiah 61:1-3)

and when their wounds are thus healed, he goes on (speaking of the spirit that energizes Israel even to this day),

They shall build the old wastes,
They shall raise up the former desolations
They shall repair the waste cities. . . .
(Isaiah 61:4)

Does the Spirit of the Lord energize us to heal the wounded so that they may participate in rebuilding our wasted planet?

Out of a world of people needing help, a few are our special responsibility. Members of our family, our meeting, co-workers, neighbors; people laid on our hearts by ties of kinship, proximity, or what Jung calls synchronicity—all these have basic claims on our time and attention.

We begin by letting them know we care, that we are concerned, that we love them. The words don’t matter too much, so we should not wait to find just the right ones. Silence is often misinterpreted as indifference, and this only adds to the problem. And there are other ways than words to convey caring and love—gestures, embraces, handclasps, thoughtful little acts of helpfulness.

It is also important not to tell sufferers what to do, or how they are hindering their own healing. This often drives the wounded to self-defense and entrenches the self-defeating behavior or attitude. Perhaps one can take an indirect approach and talk about a third party. But, like children who carry on the forbidden activity behind the parental back, the wounded may resent anything that smacks of criticism and feel driven to justify continuing in old habits.

Only rarely is a person big enough, humble enough, wise enough to sense the precise moment when a sufferer is open to advice or analysis, so that the truth can be spoken in love. Only rarely is a sufferer big enough to take it without additional hurt, even when criticism has been asked. For often asking for criticism is a cry for validation, a longing to know we are acceptable.

But if we blunder and say the wrong thing, the situation is not necessarily irreparable. Caring is still needed, more than ever probably, although we may have express it from a distance for a while. The human spirit is resilient; the need for love is great, is basic, and forgiveness may come in time. We can learn to be more sensitive the next time.

Supportive listening is what is required: the full attention of a caring person. Having that, the wounded can often heal themselves.

We have a special obligation to those who are newly wounded in ways we have been hurt. We need to reach out and say: I know. I understand. I’ve been through it. We can share their grief or suffering or frustration in realistic ways. We can give hope that this too can be lived through, this too can be a means of growing in compassion. They are not alone; they were not singled out. We can be there patiently to let them discharge all the hurt and anguish.

And we can pray for the wounded. I have found a model for myself of such a prayer in a poem by Goethe. In the winter of 1777, he travelled in the Harz Mountains and visited a young man who had withdrawn from society. In the poem Harzreise im Winter (Winter Journey in the Harz Mountains), he describes the man:

Who goes there apart? He loses his path in the thicket.
The branches spring back behind him and the grass rises again.
A wasteland engulfs him.
Who, who can heal the wounds of one whose balm has become poison?
From the springs of love, he drinks hatred for all.
First the scorned, now the scorner,
Secretly gnawing at his own worth in barren egoism….

Then follows the prayer:

Is there upon your psalter, Father of love, a tone
that may reach his ears and reawaken his heart?
Open his clouded eyes to the thousand springs
that well up for the thirsty, even in the wasteland.

I find I cannot pray for a setting aside of the laws of cause and effect for healing, either for myself or for those I love. Healing must come from within. My mind and heart reject an arbitrary God who can be bribed. If God is all-powerful and can heal and save, and yet allows the incredible agony of the world, this does not seem to me like the loving, universal parent Jesus told us God is.

Out of our own anguish that we cannot always protect our children from pain and death, we glimpse a measure of the suffering of God and find our small griefs swallowed up in the cosmic suffering. In his biographical introduction to Thomas Kelly’s Testament of Devotion, Douglas Steere tells of a time when Kelly was praying in the cathedral at Cologne and "seemed to feel God laying the whole congealed suffering of humanity upon his heart—a burden too terrible to be borne— but yet with His help bearable."
As we reach out of our own woundedness in compassion and tenderness to others who are suffering, our compassion grows, and we experience something of the compassion of God and know the comfort of the Everlasting Arms.

And if we enter into the anguish of God, it is not possible to go comfortably about our daily lives while the world burns. Yet how can we take all the problems of humankind, let alone those of the ravaged Earth, the plants, the animals? Thomas Kelly reminds us that we are not called to die on every cross. God lays concerns upon us, shows us our special responsibilities, and we find the way opening to be instruments of God’s peace and healing. God needs us. God cannot do it alone. In St. Theresa’s beautiful words, "Christ has no hands on Earth but yours. . . . " God’s peace comes through imperfect human instruments.

Nor need we experience all the varieties of woundedness. Here again, creative imagination is needed to breathe reality into cold statistics. This is one of the functions of art. In Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country we can experience South African apartheid. In the books of Elie Wiesel, we experience Buchenwald. In the poetry of Thich Nhat Hanh, we experience Vietnam.

The real enemy is indifference. Not caring is the cardinal sin. God keep us from going comfortably about our daily routines merely spectators.

Finally, let us not lose faith in life itself. What the world needs most is people who have come out on the other side of woundedness, who know experientially that the ocean of light and love does indeed flow over the ocean of darkness and death, as George Fox told us, and that in that ocean is the love of God. Let us believe in the resiliency of green and growing things, of the human spirit. Let us have faith in the enormous store of "that of God" in the Universe. With Heraclitus let us know that winter will give way to spring, that woundedness can give way to healing, and that evil can be overcome by good. Let us give ourselves to the spirit that makes for wholeness and community, that rebuilds when things break down, that repairs the waste cities.

Heraclitus felt the Eternal woundedness. He said, "Gods and human beings are really one—they live each other’s life and die each other’s death."

And Second Isaiah has described for us the Eternal wounded healer:

He was despised and rejected of men,
a man of sorrow, and acquainted with grief.
Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows….
He was wounded for our transgressions,
he was bruised for our iniquities;
Upon him was the chastisement that made us whole,
and with his scourgings we are healed. . . .
(Isaiah 53:3-5)

We are not alone.
Arise, shine, for your light is come.
(Isaiah 60:1)

Elizabeth Watson

Elizabeth Watson is a member of Minneapolis (Minn.) Meeting. This is the unrevised text of an article that appeared in Friends Journal in the July 1-15, 1976, issue. It is excerpted from a talk she gave at the 1976 sessions of Southeastern Yearly Meeting in Florida.