In seminary we read a famous book called The Wounded Healer. Written by Father Henri Nouwen, it was based on an idea of psychologist Carl Jung.
The idea is that effective pastors and therapists draw from their own wounds and pain in order to empathize with another. Their own pain gives them a unique window into the feelings of their patient or parishioner.
I was initially dubious of the idea. Every pain or tragedy or illness is unique. We can never enter fully into another’s feelings.
Over time, however, I realized it is not so simple. I realized that behind my initial suspicion was a unhealthy aloofness.
How We Wall Ourselves Off
When you work with many people in pain, it becomes easy to protect yourself by limiting the stretch of your heart. We tell ourselves we have to be strong for those who need us.
Sometimes this is true. [callout]But often the greatest strength is found through the greatest strain. A stretched heart is a bigger heart.[/callout]
When We Realize the Truth
I felt this truth at a recent funeral I conducted. It was an early death of a vibrant young man. The pain throughout the sanctuary was palpable.
I had written a eulogy that recounted the man’s life and shared some Jewish teachings on tragic losses. That was what I thought people expected. I just hoped to stay calm and collected.
Yet, as members of the family spoke, my heart began to stretch. The tears began to flow. A part of my heart I had tried to wall off broke through. Instead of pushing it back in, I let it go.
I set aside the eulogy I had prepared, and spoke instead about biblical image that had popped inside my head. It was the image of Jacob wrestling with the angel.
What Jacob Learned
Alone, at night, at the shores of a dark river, the youthful Jacob struggles with this angel. He survives, but the angel leaves him with a permanent wound on the thigh. The wound slows him down. But it does not stop him. It does not leave him broken.
Rather, it makes him a more forgiving brother, a more humble leader and more loving father. His life never became easy. But it always remained full.
This young man’s life resembled that of Jacob. He struggled, yet the struggle did not fell him. It made him who he was. I would never have realized this truth had I not let myself feel, and feel fully.
Opening our hearts comes easily for some. Yet, we can all try a little harder. We can all struggle a little more. We can transform our pain into passion, our wounds into wisdom.
As Ernest Hemingway said, “The world breaks everyone, and some are strong in the broken places.”