How can we assist the healing of a broken world when we ourselves are far from healed?
The question has followed me across forty years of work on four continents. I first saw it as a problem for others, in the inability of colleagues to “walk the talk”, in conflict within and among the peace organizations that have been my home, and in burnout among colleagues on rugged edges of my field.
It was another step when I came to see it as my problem, as I grew more aware of my own inconsistencies and wounds, and my own perennial struggle with exhaustion. Then came a third big step as I slowly realized we all struggle with a challenge larger than any of us.
The very enterprise of helping, leading, and healing others brings complex issues and decisions into the life of any mortal who steps into it. Those issues can diminish or enlarge us, socially and spiritually. If we recognize the opportunity they present for growth, we can make our calling a location of profound growth at all levels of being.
I went to a conference and met – myself
When I arrived in Denver at the National Conference on Peacemaking and Conflict Resolution in June, 1986, I was excited about the prospects ahead. The field of conflict resolution was in its infancy and five hundred people were gathering from all over the world to share our experiences and learn from each other. As founding director of one of the few organizations with full-time staff in the field at that time, I had looked forward for months to this rare chance to engage fellow pioneers.
But within hours I was disillusioned. On one hand, there were a lot of exciting new initiatives taking place. Schools, government agencies, universities and businesses were all experimenting with using and teaching skills for peaceful resolution of conflict.
But it seemed that many teachers of peace had only a superficial grasp of the concepts they taught. The air was thick with discussion of “win/win” negotiations and “joint problem-solving”, yet great rivalry was also on display. Participants guarded their training materials carefully. Prickliness between organizations and individuals was apparent in a number of sessions. Many seemed more interested in demonstrating their own success than in learning from or contributing to others. “These people can’t practice what they preach,” I complained to a friend, and withdrew into self-righteousness.
Then I walked into a workshop on a topic in which I had done a lot of work. I knew most of the panelists. Most of them knew me. But they were at tables up front looking important; I was sitting in the back. So why hadn’t I been invited to participate? My work was as interesting and important as theirs. I’d been around longer than most in the room, too. Disappointment and jealousy swirled up in me.
With it came something else, chagrin. It wasn’t just others who had a problem practicing what they preached. I was no better than anyone else. Alongside my good motivations about building a better world dwelt other motives that were harder to acknowledge. I wanted recognition. Longed for it, craved it so much that I could hardly keep my mind on an interesting topic because I wasn’t getting what I thought I deserved.
And then found others on the same journey
Over the next several days I continued to think about ego, competitiveness, and turf. But now I was struggling with myself, not with others. Scheduled to speak at a plenary gathering one evening, I felt an inner prompting to set aside the rather academic presentation I had planned and reflect on the challenge of peacebuilders practicing what we preach. With sweaty palms and quaking knees, I heeded the voice within, afraid I’d be written off for good by pragmatic professionals.
A second surprise followed. Minutes after the plenary closed, I was surrounded by a small multitude of people with the most enthusiastic responses I’ve ever received to a speech. Their words came down to one simple message: “We struggle with this too. It is a major issue for our field. Thank you for naming it in a public forum.” Some conversations begun that evening continued for years in other settings.
The lessons of that week continue to shape the journey that has followed. Several decades later I have fistfuls of stories confirming that being an agent of healing is more than a skill or profession. I have personal experience – by no means all joyful – that to be a world healer is a way of living that requires a lifelong journey of personal transformation of all who pursue it. It’s clear now that many people sense the possibilities of this journey and long to pursue it, but are unsure how.
Having lived with this paradox of unhealed healers for several decades now, I see that, as with most challenges in life, what first feels like one person’s struggle turns out to be shared by many. Leaders and healers of all kinds find it hard to live their lives by the vision we uphold for others.
We think we are alone in our struggle until an honest conversation suddenly reveals that somebody else carries a similar burden. Fear of being discovered keeps us isolated, but in fact we are a universal horde of the walking wounded, each with fears and regrets and shames carefully camouflaged, each laboring in quiet isolation.
The truth is that the issues here follow all humans across the course of our lifetime. Like shadows that grow as afternoon advances towards evening, they become more difficult to ignore with the passage of life. And they become unavoidable when we exercise leadership for healing and change. When our vocation calls us to help others get to a better place, no thoughtful person can escape the irony of our own desolation. When others look to us for healing and hope, our own moments of brokenness and hopelessness stand out in painful relief.
The temptation, of course, is to deny and hide the pain, covering it in endless busy-ness and always another step higher on the ladders of accomplishment. But if we choose differently, we can allow our human-ness to become our richest asset in the healing of others. No techniques can accomplish this. Leading the healing of our world from the riches of our own ragged humanity must come from an inner essence forged across time, in the depths of the soul.
This blog is for those who wish to begin a conversation, a least with themselves, about what it means to be healers who accept that we are ourselves deeply wounded, and who choose in response to make the calling of social healing a path of deep personal growth, one that can be sustained for a lifetime.
For Reflection and Discussion
Have a conversation with someone else in your field: To what extent do you believe that others in your field are wounded healers? Tell a story or recount an experience that supports your view.
Then recount a story or experience that shows there are exceptions to your view.
Finally, ponder the difference between these experiences. What enables some practitioners to apply their knowledge of and skills in healing to themselves and their relationships while others do not?