The Wounding and Healing of the Human Spirit

Sometimes when I’m tired—almost too tired—I can’t sleep. I want more food for the world and less suffering. I feel confusion, sadness, gratitude, and awe. I live; I am a person; I long for safety and happiness. I’m also a white, liberal, Jewish, widowed, crippled orphan. I’m a psychologist, father, grandfather, radio host—but those are just details; they come and go.

To me, to talk about the soul is to address matters of the Spirit and the Divine. I don’t think we can face our divinity until we face our humanity—and maybe they’re both the same. For 25 years now, I’ve been wondering and exploring what it means to be human. Twenty-five years ago, I had my accident and became a quadriplegic. Everything changed then. People looked at me differently, they spoke to me differently. Even my loved ones treated me differently as I could hear their voice go up a half a decibel. I could feel their anxiety in my presence. So I wondered, what does it mean to be human? Was I human? After all, I couldn’t survive without a wheelchair, drugs, nurses. Does a human need to walk—is that part of the definition? To dance? To stand up for one’s beliefs? Does a human need to be independent, strong? Does a human need to be powerful to be all that one can be? What does it mean to be human in a world that says, as a car commercial I heard on the radio said, "Good enough is no longer good enough." What does it mean to be human in that world—in a world where average has become a four-letter word? So, what does it mean to be human? I think each of us has to answer that for ourselves.

I’ll tell you some some of my answers. To be human is to live with paradoxes. We long to belong, to be a part of, and yet we need to be unique. We need to be fully understood by others. As I say frequently, the hunger to be known exceeds the hunger to be loved. More important even than love, we need to be fully understood by others, yet dare we ever fully open up to someone else? Dare we do it to ourselves? Love is necessary, and it’s terrifying. Hatred is destructive, yet it is a part of our fiber. What does it mean to be human? It means to suffer. It means to live with injustice; it means to love; it means to be betrayed; it means to betray others. Marian Woodman, an insightful feminist woman analyst, said the divine child that lives in all of us is always an orphan. She says to be human is to wrestle in our orphanhood and with loneliness. To be human means to feel alienated, the scourge of today’s world. Poet Franklin Abbot said, "As sure as a flower is drawn to the sun, the entropy of the human spirit to seek wholeness." The Hebrew Talmud says, "Every blade of grass has an angel over it saying, ‘Grow, grow.’"

After my accident, I told my loved ones that I will live with this for three years, and then I’ll decide whether to continue. So, at the end of three years I took myself into my bedroom and I talked with—I don’t know who—my God, whatever that meant then. And I said, "Okay, I’ll live with it, but give me hope that one day I’ll walk." And what I heard back was no hope. Make your choice: live or die. And I said, "Well, then give me hope that one day I won’t be so sick." (I was terribly sick those first two or three years.) Same answer: no hope. Choose one: life or death. And for everything I tried to negotiate, I failed. I chose life, but why? I told myself initially that I chose life because I wasn’t man enough to choose the alternative. Then I told myself I chose life because my kids needed me. Then I told myself I chose life because I needed them. And then I told myself the truth—I chose life because that’s what we do. That’s what it means to be human. Like every blade of grass, we choose life.

Being alive means that one day we’ll die. Being human means we know we will die. What we do with that knowledge changes everything.

My buddy and his wife just had a baby, and they also have a four-year-old son. The little boy insisted on spending time alone with his new brother. They didn’t know if he wanted to use his little brother for a speed bump—you don’t know those little minds, they can be scary. But they did what parents do. They gave in and they peeked through the door as they let their four-year-old son go into the nursery and run up to his brother’s crib. He looked through the slats in the crib, and he said to his brother, "Quick, tell me what the angels look like, I’m starting to forget." This story is true at every level. We’re born knowing what the angels look like, and by four, we start to forget. There’s a wonderful little parable a rabbi told me, that before infants are born, God imbues them with all the wisdom they need to get through life, to solve all their problems, and to answer the difficult questions. Then God says to the child: "It’s a secret." This dent under our noses is God’s fingerprint. Sweet story, huh?

At the core of our humanity, we know the angels. We have the ability to love, to show empathy and compassion. The research shows that; we know that. Infants do it. We watch kindergartners show empathy for one another. (And at that age boys are more compassionate than girls. That changes pretty quickly.) Children have more faith than we do. And children have awe—what a gift awe is! When my grandson was about four, he loved to run through the bamboo stalks near their house, which can grow to be about 20 feet tall.

A few months ago, he was running through the bamboo with his father, who’s also four sometimes (he’s a son-in-law, so I can say that), and all of a sudden little Sam stopped and turned around, his eyes wide as saucers, and said, "Daddy, look how little we are." That’s awe. Young children are unskilled at prejudice, discrimination, and mistrust, but they learn these things early in life. Boys are told to be strong and invulnerable. Boys are taught to lie when they feel vulnerable. Girls, I think more than ever today, are told to be pretty and sexy. Both are taught to achieve, almost at any cost. You know the saying; we’ve all heard it: "You can’t be too skinny or too rich." That’s what they’re taught. They grow up hiding parts of their selves out of shame. They hide their vulnerability, their fears, their anger, and their real hungers. They grow up with a better understanding of who they should be than who they are.

As a result, they disavow parts of their vulnerability, their weakness, their fear, their dependency. They disavow part of their very humanity. Look at the world they’re growing up in. They’re chasing numbers—it’s about performance. I heard a lecture by Ken Burns in which he said the media sees our children as performance units rather than spiritual beings. Many of our families do the same, as do most school systems.

So, there is a voice inside of our children that becomes silenced. What happens when this occurs and we disavow parts of ourselves? What happens to us as adults that makes most of us feel we can live without compassion, that we can judge people in a millisecond, even harm them? We all do it. I was driving before the November 2004 elections, when anxiety was sky-high and there was more divisiveness in this country than I can ever remember there being. I was behind a car or truck with a National Rifle Association sticker on it. I could have told you in 15 seconds all about that driver. Not only about how he was going to vote, but how he raised his kids and what he was going to eat for dinner—red meat, rare.

How can we do that? How can we live in a world where we’re so quick to judge people, to harm them? We grew from the children who knew the angels, to adults who know how to hate, hurt, and judge. We grow to adults who, out of fear, turn a blind eye to their own insecurity and vulnerability, let alone that of others. We can no longer hear that quiet voice in our souls. Most of our lives are about the same things—diminishing suffering, finding happiness and peace, and having the ability to give and receive love. I think if we all think about it, that’s what our lives are about. Here and now, in every home, and everywhere—that’s what lives are about. Almost all human behavior is motivated by these things. Some people have done very destructive things to diminish suffering—sticking needles in their arms, starving themselves, working themselves to death, or even worse: flying airplanes into buildings. They blow themselves up and kill other people—all in an effort to diminish suffering and find peace and happiness. Of course it’s misguided, but it’s the same motivation.

How many of us have done dangerous or self-destructive things in our lives to avoid the pain of feeling alienated or insecure? How many of us have lied or manipulated someone in some setting so we wouldn’t be alone, so we wouldn’t be judged? We can’t talk about healing the soul without talking about wounding it. I think there are two kinds of wounds: major traumas (death, disability, illness, loss), and everyday wounds. And frankly, I’m more concerned about the everyday ones.

Here’s an example: Several years ago, I was sitting in a hospital lobby, waiting to meet a colleague. I had a case on my lap and a cup of coffee on my case, and a woman walked by and put a dollar in my mug. Then she tried to get her dollar back, would you believe? So, I learned two lessons. One is, as long as I’ve got my mug I can make a living. And the other is, people don’t look at people in the eyes. She saw my wheelchair, not my humanity. I didn’t see hers, either.

We go by street people, and we don’t look at them. It’s funny—when a street person sees me, we nod at each other. It’s like we know something or we’re in a club together. There’s one homeless man I pass, and when we don’t see each other for a couple months we start to worry about one another. A young girl, 17 years old in high school, was a recently converted Muslim. I asked her if she faced any discrimination. She said, not much.

However, she was waiting for the subway a couple months ago, and she looked across and noticed a woman staring at her with hatred in her eyes. She went on with her next sentence, and I said, "Wait a minute; what happened to you?" She said it made her uncomfortable, and went on with her story; but again I asked, "What happened to you?" and she said, "Well, it hurt." I said, "Tell me more about what happened to you." She began to cry, and she cried hard. She hurt, and she didn’t even know it. I wondered about the woman who was staring at her. She hurt, too, and she didn’t know it either. These are everyday wounds. This is our behavior on the road. This is how we dehumanize one another by using labels.

When I saw that truck with the NRA sticker, I wasn’t aware of what I was doing with myself, let alone him.

My friend, an internist, was just called in by the head of his department at a nearby teaching hospital and told, "You know how we said you should spend 17 minutes with your patients? It’s now down to 14." Imagine seeing people suffering every 14 minutes. What does that do to a doctor over time? I’m not even talking about what it does to the patients. These are everyday wounds.

At least as destructive as those wounds is that we work too hard. We ignore our physical, emotional, and spiritual needs too much. We reflect too little, we consume too much of our world, and our children get wounded in the process. A recent study found that the rate of depression in affluent communities is double that of the inner city. Anxiety rates in girls are triple that of the inner city, and we know what’s happening in the inner city. Wealth harms children; poverty harms children; ignorance harms children. When we don’t have people in our vision with love in our hearts, they’re harmed and we see the result of it every day. We push and push. I was told by a third-grade school teacher in Cherry Hill that she was given a videotape by her supervisor to show her kids how the best get into Harvard. This was third grade! That’s where I live, and we have had eight suicides in the last three years. Eight adolescents have hung themselves. Everyday wounds are dangerous.

This is the kind of spiritual wounding that encourages all of us to try to be someone we’re not. One of my supervisors said that the world is filled with people trying to be filet mignon when deep down we know we’re meatballs. (Maybe today meat metaphors aren’t the best.) When the gap between who you are in your soul and what you do with your life every day is too big, it’s a kind of spiritual death. That’s why I’m most concerned about the everyday wounds. They are small wounds to our souls.

Now here’s why I’m not as concerned about the major traumas. Victor Hugo said that, in darkness, the pupil dilates as if searching for light. In adversity, the heart dilates as if searching for God. In major traumas the heart dilates, everything is open, and everything is possible, and we are vulnerable at our purest. That really didn’t happen to me after my accident—I still had some defenses there. But ten years afterward, I found myself at the epicenter of my worst nightmare. My fear after my accident was that everyone would leave me and that I’d spend the rest of my life in bed with a nurse who was on the clock.

Well, ten years later, my wife did in fact leave me, my kids left for college, my beloved sister was diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor, and I developed an decubitus ulcer, which is a bedsore in my buttocks. And I found myself in bed, alone, with a nurse on the clock, in the middle of my worst nightmare. The doctor said I had to be in bed for 30 days 24/7. That 30 days turned into 18 months.

A friend came over to visit, and I said to her, "I don’t think I can go on much longer." She touched my shoulder and said, "Dan, what you’re about is more important than who you are." I was in too much despair to understand those words—they had an impact, but I didn’t understand them. That night I dreamt that three men came to me and produced a butterfly. It was a living butterfly with a wingspan of about three inches, and they said, "This butterfly is your soul. In order for you to be a complete human, you have to inhale it." And I said, "I can’t do that, it’s a living butterfly." But they told me I had to inhale it, so I put it in my mouth and the thing flapped around and I took it out. "I can’t do that," I said. "But you must." "But if I do it, I could choke—I’ll die," and they said, "That doesn’t matter either, wholeness is what matters." So I put the butterfly in my mouth, and I inhaled, and when it got to my throat, of course I woke up—a true story.

Something changed after that. Lying in bed, I found a kind of peacefulness, a kind of companionship within myself that I’d never experienced before. It was a mixture of spirituality and gratitude. When someone walked into my room, I could physically feel their presence in my chest. It’s as though they walked into my heart and I didn’t feel like a Dan or a person or a man, I felt like simply a being. It was as much peace and serenity as I’ve ever experienced. What died? My ego died, and I discovered what’s on the other side of despair. I discovered what happens when you don’t try to repair despair, or cure it, fix it, medicate it, or avoid it. Beyond the despair where my heart was fully open, I experienced a kind of love I’d never had before, and I developed a relationship with a God I never did before. I learned that my God asks only one thing—faith—and in return promises only companionship. I figure it’s a pretty good deal.

When the heart is open, it’s alive; it’s open to joy, to vulnerability, to pain, to grief. When the heart is open we discover our demons, and we live with them. We don’t have to fight them anymore. We discover our voice, our love, our God. When the heart’s open, we understand our humanity. We are closer to the Divine and to each other.

So what closes our heart? Think about it; nobody’s heart stays open. I talked about this to a group of cardiologists. If your heart stayed open all the time, you’d die. And so the spiritual heart also opens and closes. What closes the heart? Anxiety? Shame? Insecurity? Grasping for more? Fear of failure or vulnerability? Failure doesn’t close the heart, fear of failure does. Judgment, envy, prejudice, all close the heart. The demands of the ego close the heart. I close the heart. So what ultimately closes the heart is when we try to be someone we are not because we are afraid of discovering who we are. The wounded heart is closed and when the heart is closed, the voice of the soul is silenced.

When I went to the doctor for my skin breakdown 15 years ago, I was suffering all these losses. And he looked at my skin, at my wound, and he said "It’s broken," referring to my skin. And I said, "I know," referring to my heart. He said, "Too much pressure." I said, "I know." And you know what the medical term for a wound is that is unhealthy and moist? Weeping. He said, "It’s weeping." And I said, "I know." So he said, "I want you to go to bed for 30 days and cover it with this patch." And I said, "But why am I covering it, I thought wounds need oxygen to heal." He said, "Your wound does need oxygen to heal, but the oxygen is in your blood, not in the air." Everything your wound needs to heal is already in your body.

So what heals the soul? Put it in a healthy environment and it will heal itself. It’s perfect. Stop harming it, and it will heal itself. What contributes to a healthy environment? One thing is faith. I’m not talking about belief. A poll showed that 93 percent of Americans believe in God. Probably single digits is the number who have faith. I’ve got a poem in my office called "Daydreams." It says, "Come to the edge," he said. "No, we might fall." "Come to the edge," he said. "No, it’s too high." "Come to the edge he said." And we came, and he pushed, and we flew. That’s the story of faith. It doesn’t have to be faith in a higher power or a supreme being, it just has to be faith.

When I was preparing for last year’s Seder, I did some research and found that the number of slaves that followed Moses out of Egypt—we assumed everybody—was 20 percent. The other 80 percent were content with predictable suffering over an unpredictable tomorrow. I think that fits. It fits with most of us.

Humor also provides a healthy environment. The Mel Brooks movie History of the World depicts Moses walking down from the mountain with three tablets. He says, "God has given us 15 commandments," and then he slips on a rock and one of the tablets breaks, and so he says there were 10. I’m thinking maybe Number 11 was, "Thou shalt not take thyself too seriously."

I had a wonderful experience a couple of years ago when we were doing a show on terminal illness. My producer and I went to University of Pennsylvania to interview a woman who was terminally ill and agreed to be interviewed. We had to crowd up at the head of the bed because there was only one microphone. We were talking about her life, and I waited until the end of the interview to ask her some of the most difficult questions.

"So what is it like now, are you beginning to mourn your own death?" And in that pregnant pause, I heard what sounded like water trickling somewhere. Now, it was a very sensitive microphone and that background noise could have ruined the interview. So in that pause, I looked over my shoulder in the bathroom to see if there was water leaking. There wasn’t.

Then I looked down at the floor, and I saw what had happened. Because the three of us were so close together, my producer’s leg knocked my catheter tube out and I was dripping on the floor. Now, I never read a book of etiquette about this, but what do you do? I said to her, "I hate to interrupt such an awkward moment, but I just peed all over your floor." She said, "It’s okay, don’t worry about it." I said, "I’m really embarrassed." She said, "don’t be embarrassed, it’s okay." I said, "Well, since I’m embarrassed and you’re not, when we get a person to clean it up, can we say you did it?" We laughed so hard we cried. And then we cried some more, about her life trickling away. We did both, and that’s what makes for a healthy environment.

I think healing the soul is ultimately about one other thing. The marquee of a church down the street from my house says, "God is love." I didn’t understand that until the last decade. I think the Beatles were wrong when they sang, "Love is all you need," but Andrew Lloyd Webber was right when he said, "Love changes everything." Love does change everything: love promised, love withdrawn, love betrayed, love lost. More than anything, altruistic love opens the heart. Altruistic love—loving the other just for the sake of the other—opens the heart more than anything you can receive.
This article is a slightly edited version of his plenary presentation to Philadelphia Yearly Meeting on March 31, 2005.

Daniel Gottlieb

Daniel Gottlieb is a psychologist, family therapist, and the host of the call-in radio show Voices in the Family on WHYY 90.9 FM in Philadelphia, Pa.