As you know, I am fascinated with the etymology or roots of words, one of which is healing, the counterpart to wounding. In its origins the word heal means to make whole. Words with the same origin are health, hale, hail, holy. The terms, sound, safe, and uninjured appear also to be possible meanings of the term. The Latin equivalents are salus and salvus, which carry the similar meanings of safety, help, health, wellness, wholeness. The Greek word therapeia, from which comes our English word, therapy, means healing, in the sense of curing form disease, but also means to attend, do service, take care of.
To heal then means to move towards wholeness, to transform in some way the elements of brokenness or illness within us, within our relationships, within our society. Healing involves in some ways the overcoming of hurt, the healing of wounds.
Spiritual writer, Henri Nouwen, makes a valuable distinction between care and cure as pathways to healing. “Care” he says, has the same roots as the word “compassion.” They derive from the Celtic word “cara” which means to cry out with, to enter the suffering of another. The words “care and “compassion” are exactly the same. To care, he adds, is to be with people when and where they hurt. Out of that care, cure can be born, If cure is not undergirded with care, he stresses, it can be more harmful than helpful.
Many people are so-called “cured,” Nouwen suggests, but hurt on a much deeper level because they have never been taken seriously by others. By paying attention only to cure, some persons may forget simply to be with people in a way which allows cure to take place. He later notes that the people who have been most meaningful to us are not the people with the solution but the people who stick it out with us even though there is no solution.
In an article on suffering, physician, Eric Cassell says that attention to physical illness alone can actually increase rather than decrease suffering. He understands suffering as any threat to the intactness or wholeness of the person. Along lines similar to Nouwen, he stresses the importance of compassionate attention to the patient as an individual, with their own life experiences, relationships, values, and stories. In short, healing means response to a person in their uniqueness and totality.
We suggested before that we follow a script or storyline in our lives of which may not even be aware. Any kind of loss or suffering can challenge or undermine that script, as it does in the play, Death of a Salesman and in the novel, Something Happened. We have suggested that it is essential to discover a script, a way of looking at life, that takes into account the whole complexity of our lives, its joys and sorrows, its successes and failures, yet at the same time maintains its ultimate sacred worth. In this sense, it is possible to have a meaningful life that includes suffering. It is possible to move towards healing and wholeness, even if parts of us are broken by illness, loss, or even betrayal. As Viktor Frankl insists, suffering is an inevitable part of life and if there is meaning in life there must be meaning in suffering.
What seems essential, on the personal level, is always to cling to a sense of our own worth, no matter what our life situation, and even when we cannot feel it.
We can perhaps most help and be helped by one another by listening with the ears of the heart, listening to ourselves and one another with openness and caring. In an interview in the On Being program, physician and author, Rachel Naomi Remen, stresses that listening is the oldest and perhaps the most powerful tool of healing. When we listen, we offer with our attention an opportunity for wholeness. Our listening creates sanctuary for the homeless parts within the other person, places where they have been denied, unloved, devalued by themselves and others. She adds further that the most important thing we bring to another person may be the silence in us, not a critical silence, but a silence that is a safe place, a place of acceptance of someone as they are. In the attentive listening with care that comes out of the silence of our soul, we can be a healing presence in one another’s lives.
The many arts can also be places of healing, In a healing conversation many years ago with my thesis director, the late Gregory Baum, he suggested that reading good novels, attending good plays, listening to good music can all be occasions of healing and growth for us. Musician and theologian, Miriam Therese Winter has stressed the importance of music for her journey toward wholeness. In her words, “Wholeness, healing, integration: that is what the inner journey is all about, and it happens when our inner and outer selves, when the world within us and the world around us, … and our own creativity merge and emerge as one. We experience this fleetingly through music. I feel it deeply, often through song. … Through music all life can be present to us, and in some sense, within us. …For some, music accompanies their inner journey; for others, it is the journey itself, the journey into ultimate meaning. When we embrace music as a healing presence, we are already home.”
In sum, we all experience woundedness in some form and we long for an elusive healing and wholeness. This journey is always incomplete. Yet the surest path to follow appears to be that of silence and solitude, of compassionate listening to ourselves and others, and of exposure to literature, music, and the other arts. And it is essential on that journey to come, with the help of one another, to a deeper awareness of our own sacredness, and that of others and of all that is, and to hold to and live from that sacredness.
May all the pain and sorrow of your life flow gradually into a healing and wholeness for yourself and for all those whose lives intersect in some way with your own.
Norman King, June 13, 2022
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