The Wounded Healer by Henri Nouwen: A Book Review
In his 1972 book The Wounded Healer, Henri Nouwen writes: “Our service will not be perceived as authentic unless it comes from a heart wounded by the suffering about which we speak” (4). I’ve noticed over my years as a practitioner that identification is one of the singular qualities that my clients both cite repeatedly and, more often than any other thing, causes them to want to return again and again to engage in sessions with me as their counselor.When I first became a practitioner, I was still exploring the depths of the Problem of Evil, as philosophers have called it. Why do bad things happen to otherwise good (or faithful) people?
In the book of Job, we see the main character afflicted in all manner of ways, seemingly for no other presented reason than that Satan made a bet with God that he could make Job renounce his faith. God “takes him on.” And Job suffers mightily as a result.
After several chapters, God comes out of the whirlwind, rebukes Job, leading to Job’s proclamation before God that “I spoke of things I don’t understand,” and the book ends, without an answer from God as to why it all happened in the first place.
It wasn’t until I landed on 2 Corinthians 1, one day when I was paying attention (I imagine you, the reader, know how that can be), that I realized Scripture provides an answer to the ancient “Problem of Evil” – bad things happen so that we can use them – or let God use those experiences in us to minister his comfort to others who are suffering similarly.
If it’s been a while, read 2 Corinthians 1 with me now. Maybe relocate yourself to another room for this.
Here we go:
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ. If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. And our hope for you is firm because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort. – 2 Corinthians 1:3-7
Did you catch the connection? There can be no comfort in suffering without suffering to begin with.
The very title of Nouwen’s book hints at his focus: The most effective healer is the one that is not only wounded but able to realize and practice out of a space where the wound itself is used in ministry and healing towards and of others. Nouwen states “Those who avoid the painful encounter with the unseen are doomed to live a supercilious, boring, and superficial life” (41).
I have struggled for years in my personal and spiritual walk with an idol of comfort. Want to see me make a fool of myself out of anger? Just make something inconvenient for me. Put a tangle in a headphone cable. Have me turn a light switch on and the bulb goes out right before dinner. Tell me a package is coming tonight by 9 pm and then don’t deliver it. Then do it again. I will go through the roof, at least on the inside.
Why? Because the world should be convenient. It should not be a problem, but it is. It’s right there in the beginning, Genesis chapter 3. Still, though. Not for me! See the Psalms for more complaining over more serious conditions than my first world problems.
I appreciate Nouwen because he says things like this:
“It is possible that the Church could be accused of having failed in its most basic task: to offer people creative ways to communicate with the source of human life…But how can we avoid this danger? I think by no other way than to find the courage to enter the court of our own existence and become familiar with the complexities of our own inner lives. As soon as we feel at home in our own house, discover the dark corners as well as the light spots, the closed doors as well as the drafty rooms, our confusion will evaporate, our anxiety will diminish, and we will become capable of creative work.” (42)
A quote like this brings me back to a place of gratitude about my alma mater, Covenant Theological Seminary. I was fortunate to be trained in an integrative Christian graduate counseling program that put as much emphasis on counselors-to-be doing the work of discovering their own truths and articulating their own stories as it did on training us to unpack the stories of others.
After all, how can I help you articulate your story if I have not yet done the work of articulating my own? How can I help you plumb depths I’ve never explored? How can I help you feel less shame about something in the midst of which I have not also experienced shame?
Nouwen uses the encounter between a chaplain and a dying farmer in a hospital as a launching point for a discussion of what makes for effective ministry. As I read this section, I simply projected my role and profession – counselor – onto the meaning of “minister” and was struck by how appropriate Nouwen’s quotes were to my work world and mission.
For example, Nouwen speaks of “pastoral conversation” as “…a deep human encounter in which people are willing to put their own faith and doubt, their own hope and despair, their own light and darkness at the disposal of others who want to find a way through their confusion and touch the solid core of life.” (43)
The counselor, therefore, becomes effective through “…the offering of channels through which people can discover themselves, clarify their own experiences, and find the niches in which the Word of God can take firm hold.” (44)
Nouwen also speaks of the importance of human presence. I will never forget a particular moment in my Marriage and Family Therapy graduate seminar. The professor just got done explaining how important it is never to underestimate the value of my presence in the room with someone in need.
Just as she finished, up shot the hand of a prospective pastor. When called upon, the pastoral candidate said, with full passion, “so what are you saying, are we supposed to just…sit there?” The professor responded perfectly by saying nothing and subtly smiling.
It is true that “The mystery of one human being is too immense and too profound to be explained by another,” (67) Listening and presence become all the more important so that I (we) don’t miss something.
I used to seriously fret over why anyone would want to pay money to sit in a room with me for an hour. I don’t fret so much anymore. The older I’ve gotten, the more present I have become, by the grace of God. Now, when I sit with people, I like to hope they feel more heard and seen than they have in quite some time, perhaps ever.
I agree with Nouwen who says, towards the close of this book “Making one’s wounds a source of healing, therefore, does not call for a sharing of superficial personal pains, but for a constant willingness to see one’s pain and suffering as rising from the depth of the human condition that we all share.” (95)
I am thankful for this book. Published two years before I was born, I stumbled upon it recently – a decade into a career of working with struggling human beings who searching for meaning amid both God and suffering.
I remember, in the early days of my Christian belief, looking back at the “wasted years” of my twenties. “Why,” I asked God, “did you let me wander around, making dumb mistakes, wasting time?”
A few days later, I met with a married couple for an intensive mediation process. The wife looked at me and said: “I’ve never told anyone this before, but here it goes.” What came out of her mouth next was my unarticulated story, a series of events included in the bag of the “why, God” memories.
I understood for the first time then that nothing is wasted. God had allowed my stumbling to enable and equip me to enter the stumbling of another, take their hand, and say, sincerely, “me too. You are not alone.”
If there is ever an opportunity for me to do the same for you, please reach out.
“Heart on Window”, Courtesy of Gaelle Marcel, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Christ Carrying the Cross”, Courtesy of Wesley Tingey, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Three Pupes”, Courtesy of Suzanne D. Williams, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Watching the Sunset”, Courtesy of Warren Wong, Unsplash.com, CC0 License