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Aid to Zen: W – Wounded Healer

This post is part of Aid to Zen – A Quick Guide to Surviving Aid Work from A to Z by Alessandra Pigni.

I’ve always been a rather poor student of Latin and Greek back in high school, but I did love Greek mythology with its tales of courage, betrayal, loss and renewal. Take the myth of Chiron, the wise centaur, who taught the art of healing to Asclepius, the god of medicine. The story goes that one day Hercules accidentally hit Chiron with one of his arrows inflicting a wound that would never heal completely. Chiron, became then the wounded healer.

I guess we are all “wounded healers”, willing to heal others, but incapable to completely heal ourselves, full of care for others but unable to attend to our own wounds. Busy trying to “fix” the world out there, and unaware of the state we are in. Serving professions often draw individuals who certainly wish to help others, but what for me is now obvious is that my altruism, includes a “selfish” component: helping others becomes a way to construct  meaning in my life. When I accept this, then the poor, the oppressed, the sick, etc. are not simply “beneficiaries” out there, they are part of me, because no matter how privileged we are, most of us have a story of sorrow and loss.

I relate to what medical doctor and meditation teacher Saki Santorelli writes: ‘we are always being asked to encounter ourselves when encountering the suffering and brokenness of another’. And writer Henri Nouwen echoes with this beautiful words: “Who can listen to a story of loneliness and despair without taking the risk of experiencing similar pains in his own heart and even losing his precious peace of mind? Who can take away suffering without entering it?”.

When engaging with the suffering of the world, we will suffer. How do we encounter stories of violence and displacement without going numb or becoming cynical? How do we create a space of sanity to continue our work? It may sound selfish and unnecessary, we feel almost embarrassed when we think of our own suffering compared to that of people fleeing from war and disaster. Yet, neglecting our own wounds will not stop injustice. And while like Chiron’s our own wound may never heal, being aware that we too are wounded, may be a useful step in the process of being present with the suffering of those we encounter, rather than trying to fix them.

aid worker's mental health


What to read:

Henri Nouwen, The wounded healer

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Mindfulnext/Aid to Zen 2011-2017 Creative Commons License
Mindfulnext by Alessandra Pigni is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.