The term ‘wounded healer’ is thought to have originated in Greek mythology with the physician Asclepius, a Greek doctor who in recognition of his own wounds, established a sanctuary at Epidaurus where others could be healed of their wounds. In the twentieth century it was taken up by the Swiss psychoanalyst CG Jung and became one of his ‘archetypes’.
More recently the Dutch Catholic author Henri Nouwen, who wrote a book with the eponymous title, developed the idea that, ‘the great illusion of leadership is to think that (people) can be led out of the desert by someone who has never been there.’ This would require that the healer be able to acknowledge their own woundedness and have made some progress in their own recovery. Wounded healers are able to walk alongside the client/patient rather than acting as their superior, and by using careful self-disclosure may promote hope for recovery.
However, for most readers of this there is I’m sure a deeper resonance to the term ‘wounded healer’ that is found in the book of Isaiah, where in the well-known ‘suffering servant’ passage of chapter 53 we read, ‘Surely, he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed’ (Isaiah 53:4,5). A clear prophecy about the coming Messiah (Jesus) who was to take away the sin of the world by his sacrificial death for all lost and broken humankind, thus acting as the ultimate, divine wounded healer.
In this context it is interesting to read a paper in a recent edition of Medical Education entitled, ‘Why impaired wellness may be inevitable in medicine, and why that may not be a bad thing.’ In it the authors say:
‘A wellness crisis exists among physicians and medical trainees. High rates of burnout, depression, stress and other states of impaired wellness have driven a sense of urgency to create solutions, and the medical education community has mobilised impressively. However, we argue—and data suggest—that this rush to find solutions has outpaced our efforts to understand more fully the nature of impaired wellness in medicine. This, we believe, has led to the implementation of solutions informed by limited understanding of the problems we intend to solve.
We propose a different way of thinking about wellness: one based on what we view as an inherent—and potentially unavoidable—risk of experiencing impairment during a career in medicine. We argue that efforts to extinguish and eliminate all states of impaired wellness may also eliminate opportunities to develop constructive coping mechanisms and future resilience, and that wellness may best be conceptualised as healthy and authentic engagement with the inevitable adversity of a career in medicine.’
In other words, the authors are proposing that a healthy recognition of our own wounds as healers (including those sustained as a result of our professional engagement with patients and colleagues) is better and more realistic than denial and projection of our pain. This theme is part of a now well established and widely taken up PRIME seminar called ‘Compassion Without Burn Out’, that encourages participants to recognise the factors that tend to push them towards burn out and develop their own solutions, whilst acknowledging, in the author’s words above, ‘the inevitable adversity of a career in medicine’.
All the great wisdom teachers in the Christian (and indeed other major religious) tradition agree that it is only in ‘letting go’ of our human tendency to want to rid ourselves of pain and suffering and humbly accepting the reality of whatever ills befall us, that we can use our own experience to empathise with and promote the healing of others. The life of Jesus shows us all that the road to resurrection runs through (not around) the pain and suffering of the cross. So those of us in the healing professions must acknowledge our own lack of wellness, and use it constructively to help us walk alongside our suffering patients.
The vast universal suffering feel as thine:
Thou must bear the sorrow that thou claimst to heal;
The day-bringer must walk in darkest night.
He who would save the world must share its pain.
If he knows not grief, how shall he find grief’s cure?
(From the Indian Epic poem Maha Bharata)
Huw Morgan is a retired general practitioner and PRIME tutor. This article is republished with permission from the PRIME newsletter.