“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: 5 b; 11-12 (NRSV)
I learned a new word a few days ago: epigenetics. Genetics describes DNA sequencing, but the new field of epigenetics shows us that genes can be turned on and off and expressed differently through changes in environment and behavior. Dr. Rachel Yehuda, Professor of Psychiatry and Neuroscience and the director of the Traumatic Stress Studies Division at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, is a pioneer in the study of children of 9/11 and Holocaust survivors. Her work has helped demonstrate how a traumatic experience can transmit a biological vulnerability to stress in future generations.
What she and her team have shown is that not only do experiences lodge in our physical bodies, but that physiological changes due to stress can actually be passed on to the next generation. One way to look at this, Dr. Yehuda says, is to think of genetics as the computer and epigenetics as the software or the app or the program.
So, you say, what does all this have to do with becoming a wounded healer? Those of us who have been wounded by trauma (early death of a parent, rape, physical or emotional abuse, war-time experience, abandonment, accident, etc.) and/or have parents who have been wounded by trauma generally have a lot more to overcome as we respond to life because our biology has given us a stress system that is more sensitive and responsive to stress.
For example, the absence of my father, who left to serve in WWII when I was a baby and never returned, affected me physically as well as emotionally. It was exacerbated by my mother’s stress, anxiety, and life-long grief. Had we know the effect of emotional trauma on the physiological systems of the body, I probably would not have spent four decades with doctors trying to find the cause of my constant stomach pain. Interestingly enough the pain disappeared, almost unnoticed, after years of Christian counseling helped me come to grips with the grief and stress of my childhood. However, the cycle of trauma, especially my fear of abandonment, had already affected my marriage and my children.
Knowing that we inherit the effects of our parents’ stress makes it easier to understand our own behavior. And knowing that our children might be biologically as well as emotionally affected by our stress makes it important to work on healing from our own wounds. That inner work of acknowledging and handling stress can create a more resilient personality. Dr. Yehuda describes a woman in one of her Holocaust group therapy session talking about something stressful that had happened at work. It was a terrible story. But then she stopped and said, ” . . . then I remembered that Dr. Yehuda said I have poor shock absorbers and I should just let things pass. And then I did and it really worked.”
Dr. Yehuda goes on to say, “Now, I didn’t say that. I wasn’t that clever. But what was so interesting was how she had internalized the information that her stress system was more responsive and had used it to actually calm down all by herself in response to a stressful situation. . . . . it’s just the power of information.”
The Christian response to being wounded is enhanced by this new scientific information. It is important to break through our denial and recognize our trauma and our pain. Jesus understands what being wounded is like! The Holy Spirit can help us deal with or woundedness, no matter how it occurred. We can move from being wounded people to becoming wounded healers empowered to share what we have learned with others.
In his book The Wounded Healer, Henri Nouwen says, “A Christian community is a healing community not because wounds are healed and pains are alleviated, but because wounds and pain become openings or occasions for a new vision. Mutual confession becomes a mutual deepening of hope, and sharing weakness becomes a reminder to one and all of the coming strength.” That healing community is our hope for fresh, new life in the kingdom of God on earth.