No one has taught me more about healing and forgiveness than Henri Nouwen. His willingness to learn from his life experiences and to share his wisdom with the world is a living testament to the work of the Holy Spirit in a surrendered life.
For example, Nouwen refutes the proverb that time heals all wounds. Instead he says that “[Time heals all wounds] is not true when it means that we will eventually forget the wounds inflicted on us and be able to live on as if nothing happened. That is not really healing; it is simply ignoring reality. But when the expression ‘time heals’ means that faithfulness in a difficult relationship can lead us to a deeper understanding of the ways we have hurt each other, then there is much truth in it. ‘Time heals’ implies not passively waiting but actively working with our pain and trusting in the possibility of forgiveness and reconciliation” (Henri Nouwen, Bread for the Journey).
The journey from wounding to healing is treacherous. We have to maneuver through boulders of anger and hurt. We have to wade through waters of unforgiveness. We have to walk delicately through the quicksand of revenge. We have to cross over mountains of heart-ache and bad memories. In the end, we must stand in an ocean of God’s love and let it all wash away.
In another section of Bread for the Journey, Nouwen reminds us that just because we have been in pain, and have even worked through that pain, doesn’t mean that we need to verbalize that pain when listening to another. I have sometimes thought that sharing the details of my hurt will be helpful to the other person’s process of dealing with his or her own hurt. But Nouwen points out,
“Speaking about our own pain is seldom helpful for someone who is in pain. A wounded healer is someone who can listen to a person in pain without having to speak about his or her own wounds. When we have lived through a painful depression, we can listen with great attentiveness and love to a depressed friend without mentioning our experience. Mostly it is better not to direct a suffering person’s attention to ourselves. We have to trust that our own bandaged wounds will allow us to listen to others with our whole beings. That is healing.
Perhaps a strong impulse to share our painful stories while another person confesses his or hers means that we haven’t really worked through the pain of our own wounding. Perhaps our eagerness to share our stories of hurt while we are listening to another’s story reveals the anger or unforgiveness that still lurk in our hearts.
Quite often I find myself covering my mouth with my hand, so I won’t step into another person’s story by telling my own. The fact that this is necessary means that I haven’t yet shelved that story in the file of healed wounds and am dragging it out because the telling helps me in some way. Maybe I am looking for compassion while attempting to share compassion for the one to whom I am listening.
Nouwen’s warning doesn’t mean we can’t share how we overcame our painful past. That sharing brings encouragement to others and often points them to a God from whom healing flows. The warning just reminds us that our past hurts are not relevant when others are sharing their own hurts. All that is necessary for us is to listen “with our whole beings.”