Wounded Healers

Henri Nouwen coined the phrase the wounded healer in reference to individuals who have developed the ability to empathize with the sufferings of others through sufferings that they have experienced themselves.

The other morning I greeted a woman who had recently had a total hip replacement. I was surprised to see her out and about so soon after the surgery. Another woman who had had a tumor removed from her lung last month approached the woman with the artificial hip and asked how she was faring. “Don’t get up,” she said, but the woman rose from the bench; and I watched these two elderly women embrace—two wounded healers reaching out through their individual pain to comfort one another.

Freud said: “Wherever I go, I find a poet has been there first.” To be a poet in this day and age is to have a broken heart. Here are the beautiful words of the poet Naomi Nye in an excerpt from her poem entitled Kindness.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
You must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you can see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore, only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.


3 comments on “Wounded Healers

  1. Kawika says:

    Another fine piece. How to integrate woundedness, kindness, and aequanimity? That may be what a great physician can hope do — someone like Osler. It’s a journey we can try to take and struggle to achieve the goal.

  2. ~ t says:

    “To live is to suffer” – Buddha

  3. I am pleased to have found this blog!

    I think in fact it was the Jungian psychoanalysts who probably first started referring to the Wounded Healer archetype as a recognized tool in the healing process. But it was certainly Henri Nouwen who really popularized the term within a wider spiritual and pastoral healing context when he wrote his own bestselling book The Wounded Healer in 1979. In it he identifies the loneliness that he himself so keenly felt as the most painful of our human wounds, leaving us craving for love and attention. Loneliness, he tells us, is recognized in words such as alienation, separation and isolation. Nouwen certainly knew suffering in his own life. Firstly he had a domineering and pushy father. This meant that Nouwen grew up always fearful of criticism and needing constant praise and affirmation. He also struggled with the painful conflict he felt between his priestly vows of celibacy and his own strongly felt need for intimacy. This was a source of his loneliness and probably accounted at least in part for his bouts of depression. His life was a continual struggle to come to terms with these wounds. This is reflected in his prolific and inspirational spiritual writing. It also explains his undoubted ability through his writings to help the suffering of others.

    I like your story to illustrate the point.

    “To be a poet in this day and age is to have a broken heart.” What a lovely thought and so true!

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