Monday, October 25, 2004

The Wounded Healer

We all remember the nicks and scratches of childhood.I vividly remember an incident in the third grade. It was after a schoolyard fight, and two friends ignored me all through recess. As we were walking back into school, one of them pointed to me and said “we aren’t talking to Chaim; he’s not normal, you know. He doesn’t have a father, and anyone who doesn’t have a father must be crazy.” The remark really hurt; it’s never enjoyable to be an orphan; but the cruel schoolyard teasing poured salt into an open wound.

What is remarkable is how the pain of childhood misfortunes persists. Absent or abusive parents, deprivations, sibling rivalries, and a host of other issues remain a part of us dozens of years later. And we spend a lifetime searching for relief from lingering wounds.The search for relief takes us in many directions. The self help section of the bookstore. Comfort food. Scotch. Shopping “therapy”. Psychologists. Kabbalah water. Prozac. We open up. We let it out. We bear down. We move on. And in fact, some of the legitimate techniques (and even some of the phony ones) actually help.

But what’s fascinating is that some of the emotionally wounded are drawn to help others, reaching beyond their own pain to extend a helping hand. They become what Henri Nouwen, the French theologian, calls a “wounded healer”.

The wounded healer uses his own suffering as a source of healing. He realizes certain scars are permanent, and even the best therapies leave a residue of pain. So he searches for a positive response to suffering, and finds it in kindness and altruism. His own pain is now a guide for healing others. And in helping others overcome broken hearts, the wounded healer finds some redemption from his own suffering as well.

Jews have always been wounded healers, using the negative experiences in our history to repair the world. Abraham the nomad becomes exceptional at hospitality. The nation that suffered as outsiders in Egypt take the stranger as their special responsibility. And the wandering exile searches constantly for the redemption of the entire world.

Immediately after the August suicide bombings in Beersheva, I visited Siroka hospital in Beersheva. The emergency room ambulance, the very same one that had carried injured victims of the previous day’s bombing, bore the following inscription:“Given by the wife and children of Benzion Rosenswajg, of Melbourne, on the occasion of his 90th birthday, 6 August, 2004. And in memory of his wife Sarah Chana, children Yechiel Shlomo and Yitzchak Meir and siblings, Nathan Moshe and Feige, who perished in the Holocaust.”

I know nothing about Mr. Rosenwajg. But when I saw that ambulance, I realized he is a wounded healer, transforming tragic memories into the gift of life.

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