This week, I have experienced an inexplicable phenomenon of talking to strangers about their life stories.
It’s not all-too-uncommon for me to begin conversation with people I don’t know; both my parents raised me to greet everyone as a friend to be made. At the same time, this weekend brought a series of synchronous conversations that seemed strangely serendipitous. My hairdresser, for instance, talked to me about her experience of the drug problem in Davidson while a CEO of a local college told me of his encounters with angels over lunch. Listening to these stories made me feel incredibly grateful and at the same time terrified by the power of instant connections. I barely knew their names, yet I knew some of their most tender thoughts. Catching a glimpse into another’s soul, I wondered if they had also seen mine.
It baffles me how and why I begin these conversations sometimes.
One of the greatest challenges of being human, I believe, is our existential loneliness. As individuals, we are each aware of our distinctive consciousness unique to our own experience. Sometimes we seek deep connection to cure us of this feeling of isolation. Other times, we take pride in our self-sufficiency, building mental barriers against sharing the deepest parts of ourselves.
With so many other beings and life forms around us, why do we feel alone? To be alone is to believe we are unknown. Whether by oneself or by others, we feel most lonely when no one understands us, appreciates us, or knows what we are going through. As my friend Andrew says, “Loneliness is a spiritual occupation.” The worst punishment for human beings is often solitary confinement because it deadens us. The pain that we experience cannot be held alone, or else it becomes our worst nightmare. Our pain is meant to be shared.
Last week, I learned that the root of the word vulnerability is vulnera, meaning “wound.” Our wounds are the most sacred parts of ourselves that often remain hidden. Yet the power of vulnerability, as expressed by one of my heroes Brene Brown, is that it allows us to form deep connections with one another. Think of the loaf of bread in Communion services from the Christian tradition: the loaf has to be broken, wounded, in order to be shared. “This is my body, broken for you,” Jesus told his disciples. It may sound like cannibalism, but it is a profound realization that as we feed one another our stories, we are fed. When we share our vulnerability, we are each others’ healers.
Take this journal entry from Saturday night:
As we sat beneath the trees at three in the morning, I didn’t know what to say that would make her feel better. I couldn’t fix anything. I could only listen, and repeat what Jesus says, “Blessed are those who weep.”
I heard from her voice that the anxiety, the uncertainty, the vulnerability can be unbearable. She replied, “I wish I were less real sometimes.” Saying this aloud, she became my healer; she helped me to see my own struggle to be real more clearly.
I experienced the power of vulnerability most deeply in El Salvador. The people’s shared experiences of pain and grief through their history of war became an open invitation to solidarity with one another. The Salvadorans taught me what it means to live in community. As Henri Nouwen writes,
“Our own experience with loneliness, depression, and fear can become a gift for others, especially when we have received good care. As long as our wounds are open and bleeding, we scare others away. But after someone has carefully tended to our wounds, they no longer frighten us or others. When we experience the healing presence of another person, we can discover our own gifts of healing. Then our wounds allow us to enter into a deep solidarity with our wounded brothers and sisters.”
Nouwen points to a crucial paradox of being wounded – it can be terrifying to others if we are still open and bleeding. Who cares for our wounds first and foremost? For me, I experience Jesus as the first wounded healer in my life. In Christ, we see that everyone, even the innocent, suffer at the hand of violence. He came to show that the Light shines through darkness, and we are not alone in our suffering. This world may be hell, but there is abundant bread to be leavened. We are known by God who accompanies us, lifts us, and gives us the courage to be present to each other.
It is not always easy to be intimate with God, however. Allowing oneself to be known involves taking a tremendous risk. Psalm 139 reminds me that nothing in us exists apart from God, and we have nowhere to hide. As the psalmist writes,
“My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place,
when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.” (Psalm 139: 15)
From one perspective, it is comforting to know that someone understands us better than we know ourselves. From another, it is terrifying that we cannot escape, protect ourselves, or control our wounds. “One cannot run away from God as surely as one cannot outrun the truth about oneself,” says theologian William Brown. We cannot escape our humanity, nor can we flee from the Divinity that awaits to transform us. As we offer our wounds to God, we allow ourselves to experience life with true intimacy. We pray and become naked, known and loved in all of our depths.
To walk through the world as a wounded healer is to trust that you are not alone; you are known by the Source of all existence. In Communion, a strength of compassion comes for you to listen to yourself and others. A courage awakens that allows you to embrace life’s imperfections, experiencing the beauty and the terror together. You can let your wounds break down your barriers, opening your heart’s hidden treasures.
With strangers and with best friends, tender conversations reawaken me to our unity. Tell me, what does it mean for you to be a wounded healer?
I close with a poem:
I am a bruise. A black and blue colony of cavities under the skin trying to counteract the pressure of diving in.
I am a wound. A swimming hole where blue blood meets oxygen to glow red, flowing air meets skin meets vein meets wild geese migrating in the rain.
You are not my band aid. You are not my brazen warrior to fight away monsters of the dark hiding beneath the sheets, you are not the word that clears my mind
but you are the lips that taste fresh fruit where the world covers wounds;
you touch the little moons of moles on my skin, looking me in the eyes, saying there is nothing for me to hide
and as we struggle to be open, we know that we are born out of water and blood, and love is what draws us closer and closer
as we learn to swim again.