Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Wounded Healer (or Happy Thanksgiving)

This Thanksgiving season, I’ve been pondering what I’m thankful for. See, I spent Thanksgiving Day alone.

My son was with his father’s family (which is a yearly tradition I believe important; I’m not angry). My own family is too spread out to get together easily. And this year, I didn’t get an invitation to another house on the day of Thanksgiving itself.

Of course the day celebrated isn’t important, whether Thursday, Friday, Saturday … or the Wednesday before. Who cares? But I was feeling a little sorry for myself on Thursday, to be honest. We’ve all been there -- the fear that we’re unloved and wouldn’t be missed if we died tomorrow. And note: I don’t think it wrong to ask for attention from our friends … as long as we give it ourselves in turn. Friendship is a two-way street, and martyr complexes are no more healthy than self-absorption. παν μέτρον άριστον. (All things in moderation.)

Now yes, I’m well aware I have a house, plenty of food, my health, a job I (mostly) like, and can pay my bills … all things too many don’t have. But when feeling lonely, material things don’t mean much. In my experience, on their death beds, people aren’t eager to say goodbye to their flat-screen TV or killer laptop or toaster oven.

We need people with skin on.

Trouble was, I was waiting for people with skin on to come to me.

On Friday, I went to share turkey and football with friends, and Saturday a buddy spent several hours of his time fixing my garbage disposal … because he could, and I needed help. I was reminded of what “thanksgiving” means … and rather disgusted with myself, I bailed on my own private pity party.

I also realized what I’m grateful for. Strange as it may sound … I’m grateful for a broken heart.

“The only whole heart is a broken heart.”

Because in breaking we are humbled.

“The world likes winners.” “Nothing succeeds like success.” Yet the world (or at least the U.S.) also likes underdogs and reluctant heroes who rise above … as long as they succeed in the end. And yes, it makes great story if we fail a little before we get to the top -- adversity overcome.

Trouble is, that’s the simple story. Most of us fail before we succeed, yes -- but we fail again (more than once) after we’ve succeeded, too. We fail, fail, fail, succeed, fail, fail, succeed, fail, succeed -- and maybe, finally, we realize success or failure isn’t the important part. That’s reality, not Hollywood.

When I was still doing hospital work and counseling, The Wounded Healer was a popular concept for what we were about. It’s even the title of a book by Henri Nouwen about ministry by service. I recommend it. Yes, it’s Christian. So what? It’s wise. The concept itself goes back to Greek mythology: the centaur Khiron (Chiron) who taught heroes. He was accidentally wounded by a poisoned arrow of Herakles (Hercules), but despite all his medical knowledge, couldn’t heal himself. Yet being immortal, he also couldn’t die. Condemned to live with the continual pain, he grew wise … but that wisdom sprang from compassion, not knowledge. (Educated by Apollo, he was plenty smart, but that wasn’t the point.) Jung would later discuss the archetype in his own work.

“We’re strongest in our broken places.” We heard that a lot in psych classes/CPE/training. It’s where we’ve failed that we learn most and can help others best -- if we take time to learn from the failure (which means laying down our pride … and/or our rose-colored glasses).

Some years later (back in grad school at PSU for my history degree), I re-read Ernest Hemmingway’s A Farewell to Arms. When younger, I’d disliked Hemmingway. A master of simplicity, he wasn’t dramatic enough for me when I was a teen. (Naturally -- everything’s a crisis to a teen.) I didn’t come to like him till my senior year in college when (an English major) I was forced to read A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls … then wondered what the hell was WRONG with me not to love Hemmingway, or at least Hemmingway's novels? His personal life was a mess; J.D. Salinger once called him a “gallant rogue.” He did Testosterone-Poisoned things in order to look suitably “manly” (war correspondent, hunter, et al.) He drank too much, had affairs, and multiple wives back when divorce wasn’t common. He suffered from depression, and shot himself just shy of his 62nd birthday. I wouldn’t recommend him as a role model. Yet he loved his cats, and the very sensitivity that led to his depression also made him a humanitarian and great observer of human nature. He used his gift for language to tell profound stories. Whatever his rep, his works aren’t novels “for men.” They’re novels. Period. They show us to ourselves, both the really ugly and the truly noble.

If anybody knew broken hearts, it was Hemmingway.

And it’s Hemmingway who said, "The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places." He’s the originator of that paraphrased quote bolded above.

Yet there’s more TO that quote. It continues: “But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.”

Cynical Hemmingway? Perhaps.

But the people who get things done in life are not, usually, the naïve or overly ideological. Maybe that wasn’t quite what Hemmingway meant … but maybe it was. He had a talent for depth in simplicity.

After all, what are some of the most powerful statements we can ever make?

I’m sorry.

I was wrong.

I care about you.

How can I help?

Lean on me, I’m your friend.

I love you.

No 25-cent words in those phrases. No purple prose. But when meant, there is nothing deeper we can say. Nothing wiser.

Wisdom isn’t knowledge. Knowledge springs from intellect. Wisdom springs from compassion.

“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.”

The wisest man I ever knew (my maternal grandfather) had an 8th grade education. Ironically -- or wisely -- he made sure all his own children got through high school and even had some college if they wanted it. He knew education important. It can prepare the ground for planting. Yet the seeds come from living (existential). More, they come from failure. They come from screwing up.

Knowledge leads to arrogance. It’s one of the cardinal sins of grad students and young professionals everywhere -- the Snooty Phase of Knowing More Than Anyone Else. We become judgmental. We assume too much. And we forget how to hear. Not just listen -- HEAR.

If we’re lucky, somebody knocks the arrogance out of us and the sense back into us. It happened to me in the spring of my first year at PSU. I think I was fortunate, getting it early. I set myself against a (new) assistant professor in the department … and nearly lost my teaching assistantship as a result of my need to show off how much more I knew than the professor. And I was WRONG. Not in the details I complained about (I was actually right). But I was WRONG and a royal ASS in how I handled it.

In retrospect, I’m quite sorry that I gave the poor guy such a hard time. He didn’t deserve that. And some years later, *I* got called on the carpet for how *I* was teaching a class. (Karma.) Fortunately, the fellow sent in to evaluate me was a lot older -- and wiser -- and his response to the complaint was basically, “Chill. She’s young. She’s learning. She’s not that bad, and I’ll fix what she’s not so good at.” And he did. By being KIND.

Compassion is the root of wisdom.

And wisdom springs from humility. We think we know … then we find out we don’t. We were wrong. Mistaken. Maybe even deluded. We were arrogant.

We get our hearts broken.

And we become human in the process.

If we can pick ourselves up, our hearts get a little bigger, a little stronger. They beat a little harder for the pain of others because we’ve been there. We aren’t the very good, we aren’t the very gentle, and we aren’t the very brave.

So we’re still alive.

And that’s when we get busy, and get things done. And if we’re lucky, life won’t be in any hurry to kill us -- so we can get a lot done in the meantime.

Personally, I’m aiming for about 90 before I’m ready to pass the torch.

Happy Thanksgiving, friends.