The Wounded Healer

Ministry in Contemporary Society

About the Book

A radically fresh interpretation of how we can best serve others from the bestselling author of The Return of the Prodigal Son, hailed as “one of the world’s greatest spiritual writers” by Christianity Today

“In our own woundedness, we can become a source of life for others.”
In this hope-filled and profoundly simple book, Henri Nouwen inspires devoted men and women who want to be of service in their church or community but who have found traditional outreach alienating and ineffective. Weaving keen cultural analysis with his psychological and religious insights, Nouwen presents a balanced and creative theology of service that begins with the realization of fundamental woundedness in human nature.
According to Nouwen, ministers are called to identify the suffering in their own hearts and make that recognition the starting point of their service. Ministers must be willing to go beyond their professional, somewhat aloof roles and leave themselves open as fellow human beings with the same wounds and suffering as those they serve. In other words, we heal from our wounds. The Wounded Healer is a thoughtful and insightful guide that will be welcomed by anyone engaged in the service of others.
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The Wounded Healer

Chapter I

Ministry in a Dislocated World

The Human Search


From time to time someone enters your life whose appearance, behavior, and words intimate in a dramatic way the contemporary human condition. Peter was one such person for me. He came to ask for help, but at the same time he offered a new understanding of my own world! This is his portrait:

Peter is twenty-six years old. His body is fragile; his face, framed in long blond hair, is thin, with a city pallor. His eyes are tender and radiate a longing melancholy. His lips are sensual, and his smile evokes an atmosphere of intimacy. When he shakes hands he breaks through the formal ritual in such a way that you feel his body as really present. When he speaks, his voice assumes tones that ask to be listened to with careful attention.

As we talk, it becomes clear that Peter feels as if the many boundaries that give structure to life are becoming increasingly vague. His life seems to be drifting. It is a life over which he has no control, a life determined by many known and unknown factors in his surroundings. The clear distinction between Peter and his milieu is gone and he feels that his ideas and feelings are not really his; rather, they are brought upon him.

Sometimes he wonders: “What is fantasy and what is reality?” Often he has the strange feeling that small devils enter his head and create a painful and anxious confusion. He also does not know whom he can trust and who not, what he shall do and what not, why to say “yes” to one and “no” to another. The many distinctions between good and bad, ugly and beautiful, attractive and repulsive, are losing meaning for him. Even to the most bizarre suggestions he says: “Why not? Why not try something I have never tried? Why not have a new experience, good or bad?”

In the absence of clear boundaries between himself and his milieu, between fantasy and reality, between what to do and what to avoid, it seems that Peter has become a prisoner of the now, caught in the present without meaningful connections with his past or future. When he goes home he feels that he enters a world that has become alien to him.

The words his parents use, their questions and concerns, their aspirations and worries, seem to belong to another world, with another language and another mood. When he looks into his future everything becomes one big blur, an impenetrable cloud. He finds no answers to questions about why he lives and where he is heading. Peter is not working hard to reach a goal, he does not look forward to the fulfillment of a great desire, nor does he expect that something great or important is going to happen. He looks into empty space and is sure of only one thing: If there is anything worthwhile in life, it must be here and now.

I did not paint this portrait of Peter to show you a picture of someone in need of psychiatric help. No, I think Peter’s situation is in many ways typical of the condition of modern men and women. Perhaps Peter needs help, but his experiences and feelings cannot be understood merely in terms of individual psychopathology. They are part of the historical context in which we all live, a context that makes it possible to see in Peter’s life the signs of the times, which we too recognize in our life experiences. What we see in Peter is a painful expression of the situation of what I call “humanity in the modern age.”

In this chapter I would like to arrive at a deeper understanding of our human predicament as it becomes visible through the many men and women who experience life as Peter does. And I hope to discover in the midst of our present ferment new ways to liberation and freedom.

I will therefore divide this chapter into two parts: The Predicament of Humanity in the Modern Age, and Humanity’s Way to Liberation in the Modern Age.

I. The Predicament of Humanity in the modern Age

People have lost naïve faith in the possibilities of technology and are painfully aware that the same powers that enable us to create new life styles also carry the potential for self-destruction.

Let me tell you a tale of ancient India that might help us to illustrate the situation of humanity in the modern age:

Four royal sons were questioning what specialty they should master. They said to one another, “Let us search the earth and learn a special science.” So they decided, and after they had agreed on a place where they would meet again, the four brothers started off, each in a different direction. Time went by, and the brothers met again at the appointed meeting place, and they asked one another what they had learned. “I have mastered a science,” said the first, “which makes it possible for me, if I have nothing but a piece of bone of some creature, to create straight away the flesh that goes with it.” “I,” said the second, “know how to grow that creature’s skin and hair if there is flesh on its bones.” The third said, “I am able to create its limbs if I have the flesh, the skin, and the hair.” “And I,” concluded the fourth, “know how to give life to that creature if its form is complete with limbs.”

Thereupon the four brothers went into the jungle to find a piece of bone so that they could demonstrate their specialties. As fate would have it, the bone they found was a lion’s, but they did not know that and picked up the bone. One added flesh to the bone, the second grew hide and hair, the third completed it with matching limbs, and the fourth gave the lion life. Shaking its heavy mane, the ferocious beast arose with its menacing mouth, sharp teeth, and merciless claws and jumped on his creators. He killed them all and vanished contentedly into the jungle.

Contemporary people realize that our creative powers hold the potential for self-destruction. We understand that vast new industrial complexes enable us to produce in one hour that which we labored over for years in the past, but we also realize that these same industries have disturbed the ecological balance and, through air, water, and noise pollution, have contaminated our planet.

We drive cars and watch TV, but few of us understand the workings of the instruments we use. Most of us see such an abundance of material commodities around us that scarcity no longer motivates our lives, but at the same time we are groping for direction and asking for meaning and purpose. In all this we suffer from the inevitable knowledge that our time is one in which it has become possible for us to destroy, not only life but also the possibility of re-birth, not only an individual but also the human race, not only periods of existence but also history itself. The future of humanity has now become an option.

Those who lived in a pre-modern age might be aware of the real paradox of a world in which life and death touch each other in a morbid way and in which we find ourselves on a thin rope that can break so easily, but they have adapted this knowledge to their previous optimistic outlook on life. For those who were born in the modern age, however, this new knowledge cannot be adapted to old insights, nor be channeled by traditional institutions; rather it radically and definitely disrupts all existing frames of human reference. For such people, the problem is not that the future holds a new danger, such as a nuclear war, but that there might be no future at all.

Young people are not necessarily modern, and old people are not necessarily pre-modern. The difference is not in age but in consciousness and the related lifestyle. The psycho-historian Robert Jay Lifton has given us some excellent concepts to determine the nature of the quandaries of those who live in today’s world. In Lifton’s terms, modern people can by characterized by (1) a historical dislocation, (2) a fragmented ideology, and (3) a search for new immortality. It might be useful to examine Peter’s life in the light of these concepts.

1. Historical dislocation

When Peter’s father asks him when will he take his final exam, and whether he has found a good girl to marry; and when his mother carefully inquires about confession and communion and his membership in a Catholic fraternity—they both suppose that Peter’s expectations for the future are essentially the same as theirs.

But Peter thinks of himself more as one of the “last ones in the experiment of living” than as a pioneer working for a new future. Therefore, symbols used by his parents cannot possibly have the same unifying and integrating power for him that they have for people with a pre-modern mentality.

This experience of Peter’s we call “historical dislocation.” It is a “break in the sense of connection, which men have long felt with the vital and nourishing symbol of their cultural tradition; symbols revolving around family, idea-systems, religion, and the life-cycle in general.” Why should people marry and have children, study and build a career; why should they invent new techniques, build new institutions, and develop new ideas—when they doubt if there will be a tomorrow that can guarantee the value of human effort?

Crucial for those who live in the modern age is the lack of a sense of continuity, which is so vital for a creative life. We find ourselves part of a non-history in which only the sharp moment of the here and now is valuable. For modern-age people life easily becomes a bow whose string is broken and from which no arrow can fly. In this dislocated state we become paralyzed. Our reactions are not anxiety and joy, which were so much a part of human existence, but apathy and boredom. Only when we feel ourselves responsible for the future can we have hope or despair; but when we think of ourselves as the passive victims of an extremely complex technological bureaucracy, our motivation falters and we start drifting from one moment to the next, making life a long row of randomly chained incidents and accidents.

When we wonder why the language of traditional Christianity has lost its liberating power for those who live in the modern age, we have to realize that most Christian preaching is still based on the presupposition that we see ourselves as meaningfully integrated with a history in which God came to us in the past, is living under us in the present, and will come to liberate us in the future. But when our historical consciousness is broken, the whole Christian message seems like a lecture about the great pioneers to someone on an acid trip.

2. Fragmented ideology

One of the most surprising aspects of Peter’s life is his fast-shifting value system. For many years he was a very strict and obedient seminarian. He went to daily Mass, took part in the many hours of community prayers, was active in a liturgical committee, and studied with great interest and even enthusiasm the many theological materials for his courses.

But when he decided to leave the seminary and study at a secular university, it took him only a few months to shake off his old way of life. He quietly stopped going to Mass even on Sundays, spent long nights drinking and playing with other students, lived with a girlfriend, took up a field of study far removed from his theological interests, and seldom spoke about God or religion.

This is the more surprising since Peter shows absolutely no bitterness towards the old seminary. He even visits his friends there regularly and has good memories of his years as a religious man. But the idea that his two lifestyles are not very consistent hardly seems to hit him. Both experiences are valuable and have their good and bad sides, but why should life be lived from just one perspective, under the guidance of just one idea, and within one unchangeable frame of reference?

Peter does not regret his seminary days nor glorify his present situation. Tomorrow it might be different again. Who knows? All depends on the people you meet, the experiences you have, and the ideas and desires that make sense to you at the moment.

Those who live in the modern age, like Peter, do not live with an ideology. We have shifted from the fixed and total forms of an ideology to more fluid ideological fragments. One of the most visible phenomena of our time is the tremendous exposure of people to divergent and often contrasting ideas, traditions, religious convictions, and lifestyles.

Through mass media we are confronted with the most paradoxical human experiences. We are confronted not only with the most elaborate and expensive attempts to save the life of one person by heart transplantation, but also with the powerlessness of the world to help when thousands of people die from lack of food. We are confronted not only with humanity’s ability to travel to another planet, but also with our hopeless impotence to end a senseless war on this planet. We are confronted not only with high-level discussions about human rights and Christian morality, but also with the torture chambers of Brazil, Greece, and Vietnam. We are confronted not only with incredible ingenuity that can build dams, change river-beds and create fertile new lands, but also with earthquakes, floods and tornadoes that can ruin in one hour more than human beings can build in a generation. People confronted with all this and trying to make sense of it cannot possibly deceive themselves with one idea, concept, or thought system that would bring these contrasting images together into one consistent outlook on life.

“The extraordinary flow of post-modern cultural influences” asks a growing flexibility of those who live in the modern age, a willingness to remain open and live with the small fragments which at the moment seem to offer the best response to a given situation. Paradoxically, this can lead to moments of great exhilaration and exaltation in which we immerse ourselves totally in the flashing impressions of our immediate surroundings.

Those who live in the modern age no longer believe in anything that is always and everywhere true and valid. We live by the hour and create our lives on the spot. Our art is a collage art—an art that, through a combination of divergent pieces, is a short impression of how we feel at the moment. Our music is an improvisation that combines themes from various composers into something fresh as well as momentary. Our lives often look like playful expressions of feelings and ideas that need to be communicated and responded to, but which do not attempt to oblige anyone else.

This fragmented ideology can prevent us from becoming fanatics who are willing to die or to kill for an idea. We are primarily looking for experiences that give us a sense of value. Therefore we are very tolerant, since we do not regard someone with a different conviction as a threat but rather as an opportunity to discover new ideas and test our own. We might listen with great attention to a rabbi, an imam, a minister, or a priest, without considering the acceptance of any system of thought, but quite willing to deepen our own understanding of what we experience as partial and fragmentary.

When we feel ourselves unable to relate to the Christian message, we may wonder whether this is not due to the fact that, for many people, Christianity has become an ideology. Jesus, a Jew executed by the leaders of his time, is quite often transformed into a cultural hero reinforcing the most divergent and often destructive ideological points of view. When Christianity is reduced to an all-encompassing ideology, those of us who live in the modern age are all too prone to be skeptical about its relevance to our life experience.

About the Author

Henri J. M. Nouwen
Henri J.M. Nouwen was a Catholic priest who taught at several theological institutes and universities in his home country of the Netherlands and in the United States. He shared the final years of his life with people with mental and physical disabilities at the L'Arche Daybreak Community in Torronto, Canada. He died in 1996. He authored many books on the spiritual lfie,including Reaching Out, The Wounded Healer, and The Return of the Prodial Son. More by Henri J. M. Nouwen
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