Jonathan Delavan encourages people, especially men, to be willing to undergo the extraordinary task of healing one’s wounds through one’s heart.
The following passage is an entry in Henri Nouwen’s personal journal, The Inner Voice of Love. It is one of the last entries in his journal—although it is not precisely ordered chronologically as a traditional diary would be—but this particular entry is somewhat summative or thematic of the underlying message and practice that Henri undertook by writing and later publishing his spiritual journaling. Hence, the “you” in the above excerpt is directly referring to Henri as an author writing to himself. Nevertheless, I believe this “you” can easily come to mean you, dear reader, or me if we are willing to place ourselves within this compassionate homily.
You have been wounded in many ways. The more you open yourself to being healed, the more you will discover how deep your wounds are. You will be tempted to become discouraged, because under every wound you uncover you will find others. Your search for true healing will be a suffering search. Many tears still need to be shed.
But do not be afraid. The simple fact that you are more aware of your wounds shows that you have sufficient strength to face them.
The great challenge is living your wounds through instead of thinking them through. It is better to cry than to worry, better to feel your wounds deeply than to understand them, better to let them enter into your silence than to talk about them. The choice you face constantly is whether you are taking your hurts to your head or to your heart. In your head you can analyze them, find their causes and consequences, and coin words to speak and write about them. But no final healing is likely to come from that source. You need to let your wounds go down into your heart. Then you can live them through and discover that they will not destroy you. Your heart is greater than your wounds.
Understanding your wounds can only be healing when that understanding is put at the service of your heart. Going to your heart with your wounds is not easy; it demands letting go of many questions. You want to know “Why was I wounded? When? How? By whom?” You believe that the answers to these questions will bring relief. But at best they only offer you a little distance from your pain. You have to let go of the need to stay in control of your pain and trust in the healing power of your heart. There your hurts can find a safe place to be received, and once they have been received, they lose their power to inflict damage and become fruitful soil for new life.
Think of each wound as you would a child who has been hurt by a friend. As long as that child is ranting and raving, trying to get back at the friend, one wound leads to another. But when the child can experience the consoling embrace of a parent, she or he can live through the pain, return to the friend, forgive, and build up a new relationship. Be gentle with yourself, and let your heart be your loving parent as you live your wounds through.
I have been reflecting on this passage since I wrote my previous article about confronting my “Steppenwolf” for two reasons. First, because it ties into the transition between my insights from Steppenwolf and what I needed to do to begin applying those insights in my life. Second, because I think it speaks to a covert obstruction rampant in our rational-based society, especially for us men.
I shared in my previous article how I was able to identity and later confront my “darker nature” after reading Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf. This personal realization and later internal confrontation was both a cognitive and emotional experience, but it was far more of the former than the later from the start. This was simply because I was far more comfortable and aware of my cognitive self and processes than I was with my emotional self and processes—a chronic symptom of my miserable dualistic-nature that I developed growing up.
For you see, the brand of Protestantism I grew up within did not quite hold emotions in good regard. I can remember being given a lecture as a boy about how the message in all the Disney movies about “trusting/following your heart” was a dangerous lie of the world because your heart is part of your “fallen nature” and therefore cannot always—if ever—be trusted. Moreover, my sensitive emotional reactions as a child were often deemed too extreme or inappropriate, including my anger. And so I quickly learned that emotions were something to be suppressed, to be suspicious of, to be demeaned and rejected in order to be a good Christian man. By the time I became a teenager, I did my best to put to death my emotional self as best I could, which in reality only left me with the strong negative emotions of rage, self-hate, shame, and depression.
Therefore, one of the first steps in my therapy was to become connected to my emotions once more—the good, the bad, and the ugly. Of course, this was anything but an easy task. In fact, it was neigh near impossible for me to do for the first year! Fortunately, I had very patient therapists, and by the time I came across Steppenwolf, I had already made some small progress in emotionally experiencing my wounds and traumatic past. So as I said earlier, reading through the novel was both a cognitive and emotional experience, but it was far more experienced in my head than it was in my heart at the time.
Soon after gaining the insights from seeing myself reflected in the struggle and suffering of Harry Haller, I read how he eventually came to address his struggle. It quickly became apparent to Harry that he was living his entire life from only his head and was not allowing either his heart or his body to have their respective moments. Likewise, I also realized that I have been doing the same in my life since trying to abolish my emotions as a teenager while regarding my body as “fallen” and “beastly”. In other words, I have been neglecting and abusing some of my core natures (e.g. heart & body) in favor of the ones (e.g. cognitive & religious) more socially and religiously acceptable by my Evangelical community.
As a result, I reluctantly came to the conclusion my therapists have been trying to tell me all along: I needed to finally and deeply feel my various wounds in order to move on in my life! Despite finally accepting this uncomfortable therapeutic process, it still remained incredibly difficult for me to actually live out.
In time and with much support and guidance, I have little by little come to open my wounds to my heart and to feel through the strong emotions that were long and deeply buried there. Strangely enough, I would eventually feel a sense of peace and healing after each emotional experience even though the wound itself would not completely vanish. While it is a process without any definite end, it is one that I have found becomes just a little bit easier with each attempt.
This brings me to the second point I mentioned in the introduction. Just as I have been taught to suppress and devalue my emotions, so too have others, especially men, been given the same message to detrimental results. Actually, I have come to believe that the practice of only rationally addressing one’s problems and wounds has come to dominate society’s perspective of how best to deal with these sensitive issues.
Since the birth of modern psychology and psychiatry, a purely rational approach has always seemed to be the preferred method to dealing with clients’ emotional messes, as if it were the emotions themselves that was the problem and not the symptoms pointing to a deeper internal problem. People, and particularly men in general, continue to hold onto this rational approach to emotional issues. Such an approach, as hinted by Henri earlier, gives people a sense of having addressed their problems and hurts without ever having to confront them on the same level in which they were inflicted. It’s almost like having a doctor simply describe to patients that they are diabetic, or have a broken leg, or have a serious heart condition without ever helping them heal or practically address these potentially life-threatening conditions!
And yet we men are just fine with this approach; in fact, we prefer this approach because it gives us a sense of control and power over our hurts and wounds. This, in turn, gives up an impression of our supposed strength, a strength that our masculine identity is often based on as dictated to us by society at large. And so to lose our “cool” and become emotional over our current hurts or past wounds becomes a threat to our manly identity, lest we are perceived as weak or characteristically defective by others and even ourselves.
This is no way to live. Believe me, I have tried earnestly to do so in the past and it drove me to the brink of insanity—a complete meltdown—by the time I finished college. It clearly wasn’t working for me and it doesn’t work for anyone I know or have met.
So what can we do differently? Well, just as Henri had to compassionately remind himself, we need to stop staying in our heads all the time and let our hearts have their say. Yes, it is equally bad to let one’s heart completely dominate without being tempered by the rational mind, but so too is it unhealthy to let your mind unilaterally govern without being mindfully informed by your emotions. Thus, both head and heart need to be in harmonious balance with one another in order to amplify their respective strengths while also compensating for each other’s inherent limitations.
Finding and staying within such a balance is an incredibly difficult task to undertake on a daily basis—as I quickly discovered in my own personal journey. I needed professional and compassionate guidance to just arrive at the point of accepting this inconvenient reality, let alone to actually practice it within myself regularly.
I won’t lie to you: it will be one of the most difficult feats you will do in your entire life. Chances are you may need professional help as I did (and if you do, find a therapist that will help you identify, explore, and live through any and all emotions that may flare up during your process) to initiate and/or undertake this immense personal healing. Nevertheless, such an undertaking will, in time, reap healing and beneficial results for yourself and those around you. I know it has done so with my life—simply being able to share all that I have with you, dear reader, is proof enough of that progress!
So take what I and Henri have shared with you here to heart, dear reader. Even if you are in a healthy and stable place in your emotional life right now, the harsh reality is that you will experience both future hurts and past wounds later on—it is an inevitable truth of life that is acknowledged in all major religions and substantial philosophies. All of us, men and women, need to be in touch with our emotional selves in order to heal those wounds that cannot be seen with the naked eye or an x-ray machine and yet are just as damaging (if not more so) as the wounds that can be seen. I sincerely hope my article today has been of some help to you, dear reader, in one way or another; and please feel free to share any of your thoughts and feelings that may have come up for you in the comments below.
Photo Credit: Abd allah Foteih/flickr