From your spiritual coach

- When You're Feeling Down

Broken, We Heal

It is often our own wounds that enable us to help heal others

Written by Ron Johnson

"I think this is too broken to be fixed," he admitted in our counseling session. He told a story of drifting, over several years, to a place he never intended and a point of no apparent return. Beneath the particulars, he spoke of his deeper brokenness—his broken heart, his broken relationships, and his broken spirit. He x-rayed his own fractures and diagnosed them as unmendable.

Yet I knew, as any healer knows, that we all limp through life with fractures of various sorts. Mostly they remain hidden underneath an outward surface of seemingly sound flesh and a self-confident denial, if not bravado. Hence our brokenness is usually unexpressed to ourselves and to each other.

In many of our communities, even acknowledging brokenness is not welcome or safe. To expose vulnerability is to invite judgment, risk shame, or fear standing out as "the only one." If the truth be known, I too am sometimes reluctant. Our fears that no repair is possible are real. Pious assurances notwithstanding, some brokenness can literally destroy us; any residency has its limits. For some, counseling is one of the few places where their fractures are felt, where their brokenness is bared. At such times, I recall that often the difference between suffering which destroys us and suffering which transforms us begins with the presence of a caring, thoughtful other who is willing to acknowledge that brokenness with us.

When I was a young clinician, I thought my ministry was about helping others heal. I little suspected how much my own healing was at issue. But pastoral theologian Henri Nouwen's image of the pastoral counselor as "wounded healer" made sense to me even then. Nouwen claims that the scars of our own suffering can become an indispensable source of healing for others, if we are willing to accept that brokenness in ourselves. To ask others to confront their own brokenness, we must find courage to face our own. Of course, as we have heard, to see the splinter in the other is often easier than to see the log in ourselves.

But such conscious self-awareness is the basis for authentic empathy with others. Opening up to our own or to another's suffering threatens to break us, too. But Nouwen made a spiritual claim—that such opening also created a potential place of God's grace, that God entered into our suffering. Nouwen believed that if the walls of self-sufficiency were breached, a form of divine empathy could be discovered. We are all bound by our brokenness, and yet our brokenness is bound by God.

As any healer knows well our often-hidden and broken places, so too any healer knows we can be made strong in our broken places. When our facades are cracked, we fear what could come crashing in. But sometimes what comes in is not what we expect, or deserve.

To my counseling client who feared no mending was possible, I eventually suggested a self-help group where fellow pilgrims shared stories admitting brokenness and finding wholeness. Not only did he find some healing in his life; he went on to be a wounded healer to others. When I am broken, and fear no mending is possible, I try to remember him. The brokenness and woundedness we all experience can be a path to healing.

Copyright © Ron Johnson