Our journeys through the darkness of suffering can lead us to find glimmers of light that can not only end our suffering but bring healing to the world. Every wound presents its gifts.
A “wounded healer” is an individual who is able to draw upon their own experiences with suffering as a resource for helping others through the process of healing. A wounded healer has discovered the gifts of their own wounds.
Among our archaic ancestors in so-called “primitive” hunting and gathering societies, shamans were the original wounded healers. Existing in a cultural context long before the emergence of scientific medicine, shamans operated more holistically and combined a vast knowledge of plant lore with ancient spiritual insights to enact healings that transcended mere corporeal transformations and also took place on a psychic plane.
In modern societies, wounded healers take many diverse forms and are certainly not found exclusively within the realm of medicine. In fact, some physicians who are devoid of empathy have not found a spiritual path through their own wounds, and who lack the wisdom of the true enchantment involved in all forms of healing may not truly be wounded healers at all.
Moreover, because so much of our suffering is not restricted to the realm of the body and is frequently found in the realms of the mind and the soul, many types of contemporary wounded healers have little knowledge of scientific medicine.
Carl Jung, the great 20th-century psychologist, popularized the phrase “wounded healer” and chose the centaur Chiron from ancient Greek mythology to symbolically represent this archetype. Jung overcame his own dark journey of the soul and repeated forays into psychosis to become Sigmund Freud's star student. Eventually Jung broke with Freud to found his own version of depth psychology with insights sometimes closer to mysticism than to psychiatric medicine.
As stated, Chiron was a centaur — half man and half horse. He was the product of an erotic union between the Titan Chronos and the sea nymph Philyra. To not be caught by his wife Rhea in flagrante delicto, Chronos temporarily took the form of a horse in his lovemaking with Philyra. Chiron was abandoned by his mother at birth when she caught glimpse of his beastly appearance. This is considered Chiron's first wound.
As with all shamans, Chiron had to continually negotiate between the two worlds, whether we think of those worlds as here and beyond, civilized and wild, human and beast, spirit and instinct, or consciousness and body. A wounded healer journeys from one world to another to perform acts of healing.
Apollo and Artemis gave our mighty centaur the gift of healing and among the ancient Greeks Chiron become known as the greatest healer. He attracted many prominent students, including Achilles, Patroclus, Jason and Asclepius. One day when out in the wild hunting he was accidentally shot by Achilles with an arrow dipped in Hydra's venom. While Chiron performed many miraculous healings in his days, he was unable to cure his own wound and was in constant pain. Thus, he became the “wounded healer.”
Being an immortal god, Chiron would have lived out his days in constant agony. But he traded his life for the mortal Prometheus, who had been condemned to death for stealing fire for humans from the gods.
In his death, Chiron was turned into the constellation Centaurus, or in some versions the constellation Sagittarius. When you gaze up into the night sky and catch a glimpse of one of our closest stars, Alpha Centauri, you are witnessing Chiron winking at us.
So, what are the gifts of our wounds?
» Wounded healers have “been there” and therefore understand the position of the wounded and can therefore fully empathize with their suffering.
» Wounded healers have come to see their own wounds as learning opportunities that make them who they are. “Going through the wound” is an initiation process in which our old self dies and a new empowered self is potentially born.
» Wounded healers do not merely focus on fixing another's wounds or lessening their pain; wounded healers help people to locate the potential gifts of their wounds.
» Wounded healers make available their own personal wounds and share their pain to help open a new vision for other wounded individuals.
» Wounded healers accept other wounded people just as they are without judgment.
» Wounded healers know the importance of self-care.
» Wounded healers know that they can only keep what they have by giving it away.
Each of us is on spiritual journey called life on planet Earth. You are the hero of your own unfolding story. Every hero following the sacred path must face many trials and tribulations. We often enter the valley of the shadow and experience dark nights of the soul. If we are fortunate, we might encounter a wounded healer to assist us with our journey.
Our willingness to examine our Shadow leads to our healing. Only through ongoingly acknowledging our unconscious, often projected and repressed, dark inner forces can we move towards wholeness and wellness.
While health professions are a natural home for wounded healers, because, as noted above, so much of our suffering is psychic and spiritual, wounded healers are found in numerous other contexts.
Consider the pastor who has faced her own feelings of alienation and is thus able to guide her congregants. Or consider members of Twelve Step programs who share their “experience, strength and hope” with newcomers. Or consider the increasing use of peer consumers in mental health systems. Countless forms of empowerment groups for survivors and advocates are predicated on the work of wounded healers.
My own journey to become a wounded healer began with an emotional breakdown that left me severely depressed, homeless and self-medicating with illegal substances. Previously a middle-class professional, the combined loss of an intimate partner, my career and my home in a short period of time left me broken and traumatized.
Along my journey of recovery, I was blessed to encounter many wounded healers and was eventually able to become whole again.
I subsequently returned to school and later served as a social worker assisting people with mental health challenges get off the streets. I am now engaged with several efforts to reform the public policies that concern our most disadvantaged populations.
While my wounds have caused me to loose everything in my life several times they have also provided me with innumerable gifts. Centrally, I have learned that I cannot lead a life focused on professional success and material trappings. Those things never truly made me happy anyway. I must lead a spiritual life based on simplicity and service to others.
I have learned that our wounds often have spiritual solutions. We must take responsibility for our attitudes to our wounds and acquire a sense of empowerment. When a person unites in wholeness with the healing capacity of Spirit, they can come to release their woundedness.
I want to encourage you in your journey to become a wounded healer. I have found that deep reflection and introspection on the nature of my Shadow has been essential to my journey of healing.
I have learned that recovery happens in relationships. We do not do it alone and when we are in our darkest moments we must develop the humility to reach out and ask for help. If we are lucky we will connect with another wounded healer who has been there and can aid us in our journey. It is in the darkness of our suffering that we locate the glimmers of light that will guide us on our journey of healing.
— Noozhawk columnist Wayne Mellinger, Ph.D., is a social justice activist living in Santa Barbara and social worker for the homeless. He is on the board of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE).