Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning. You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken my off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy.Psalm 30: 5b; 11-12 (NRSV)
Being Present by Jeff Huisman
I love to write, and it isn’t often that I’m at a loss for words, but I believe that reflecting on my experience as a wounded healer has had me more stuck than I have ever been. I believe I’ve been blocked by a false narrative.
You see, I’ve been trying to think of some way in which I was wounded, was healed, and then am engaged in healing others with a similar wounding. The truth is that I can’t think of such way. But I finally realize that I’ve been asking the wrong question. My wrong question implies that I’m somehow going to repeat my own healing in the lives of others; in fact, that I’d use my life experience to fix them. That’s dangerous territory for me. I’m a dentist, so professionally my job is to use experience and training to fix things others cannot fix for themselves. I’m male, so stereotypically you may guess (rightly) that it’s easy for me to jump from “hear a problem” to “solve a problem.” And I’m human, so it’s easy for me to assume problems are things that are meant to be solved: the sooner, the better.
So you see the issue. I will serve no one if I try to find an aspect of my life which has been wounded and healed and then go out seeking others who appear to have a similar wounding and impose my solution on them. Yet I also hear a voice deep inside saying that, in fact, I am a wounded healer. So a different understanding must be in order. Perhaps my wounding and healing are the qualification, rather than the content, of my service.
I had neither experience nor tolerance with failure as a young man. God gifted me with considerable academic and artistic ability. I enjoyed being first in my class, first chair trumpet in band, and playing the lead on stage. However, I’m not gifted athletically at all. I’ve never played a game of baseball, basketball or soccer with my friends. I never wanted to experience the frustration of trying to learn to do something I wasn’t naturally good at. And I certainly never wanted to risk failure. I was heavily bound up in being the best and looking perfect.
The blessed wound came when I was 26 and really experienced failure for the first time in my life. I had already graduated from dental school and was taking the licensing board exams. At that time, the failure rate on the boards was running around 50%. I was determined not to fail, so I practiced and practiced the procedures where most of the failures occurred. I did fine on those sections. I failed my board exam on “polishing teeth.” It was horrible, frustrating, and humiliating. And in the midst of it, I could hear God assuring me that I had failed something easy so that I wouldn’t need to worry about whether I could pass the next time the boards were offered – and assuring me that I had failed because I absolutely needed this experience.
Failing when I tried so hard for success changed something inside me. I had to live with my failure and begin to accept it as a part of my experience; by extension, I began to have much more compassion for the failures of other people.
Some years later I was involved in the Apprentice of Jesus program at our church, first as a participant and later as a facilitator. Through those experiences, I began to understand how invested I was in the idea of a spiritual meritocracy: God blesses the righteous and punishes the wicked. You earn what you get and you get what you earn. Really it was a reflection of those same early views of success and failure brought over into spirituality. The healing of that false narrative is a continuing process, and it is a wonderful healing.
My wounding and healing provides for me the basis for being present to another human. I can sit with someone filled with joy and not have to wonder what I need to do to earn the kind of joy I see. I can sit with someone filled with hurt and tears and not assume that he brought the pain on himself through lack of proper effort and discipline. My own experience is tangential, perhaps irrelevant, in these situations. What matters is my developing capacity for presence – the most human and healing gift I can bring to another person.
MULLING IT OVER: Have you experienced someone “being present” with you in a time of blessing or sadness? What was that like? Has God’s work on your wounds made you more available to listen to another?