Where Have All the Healers Gone?
“I am not foolish enough to believe that the world is healable, but I know what to do to make sure that there is one less child tortured, one less person in poverty.”
I am writing after news of (more) gun violence: on October 1st, three young people were killed and two injured in a street shooting in Lawrence, KS, where I lived for seventeen years. This would have caused national headlines but for the mass shooting in Las Vegas on the same day in which twenty times that number were killed and over five hundred injured.
There is no justification, none, for gun laws that provide legal ways to empower a single individual to take lives on such a scale. But the issue is about more than the aspects of gun culture that we have fetishized in this country, the gun lobby or even the lack of political will to create adequate gun control laws. The deeper issue is at the roots of why so many of us are living our lives, in gun-speak, "locked and loaded." This translates to the question of why so many of us are living in fear.
I don't pretend to have a final answer, but I do know something from my hands-on healing work about the change that comes over people when they feel genuinely safe, connected and heard with compassion. Their bodies relax and their minds settle. Their nervous systems learn to shift out of "defense physiology" (fight or flight) into a state in which it is possible to rest, regenerate, dream, trust, feel and grow. In short, they shift to the hidden but accessible resources that can thrive within them when they are not in fear.
We all have the innate capacity to make this shift and I believe it is central to the calling of a healer to help make this easier. The skills involved are within reach and I believe the times we are living in are asking for them.
In this spirit, here is a reflection I wrote some years ago on the word "healer." I offer it as encouragement to all who have identified this calling in themselves, even if they call it something else.
At a recent staff meeting where I work, a colleague objected vehemently to the use of the word “healer” in a proposal we were drafting. He was objecting to the pretense of personalizing healing as the province of any individual, and warning against the kind of grandiosity that is all too well-known in the world of healing, whether it is in complimentary and alternative, or more mainstream settings. The paradoxes and issues surrounding the word “healer” have been around a long time, of course, but his sudden emotional charge around the subject made me thoughtful.
Surely, there is something to these objections. If someone comes along calling themselves a “healer,” you should probably avoid them as if they had just driven up to the curbside in a black car with shaded windows, thrown open the passenger door and offered you a ride out into the country at night. There are even official constraints on the use of the word. In most states, you can get into legal hot water if you call yourself a healer too publicly (unless you are a faith healer and don’t charge money), or imply that you can heal people of their symptoms (unless you’re a doctor, of course). Interestingly, these regulations usually come from the State Board of Healing Arts.
Personally, I do use the word “healer,” but I use it advisedly. Having written a book called “Energy Healing,” I have walked more than once into the crossfire of opinions about whether it is ever valid to refer to another person, or to oneself, as a healer. My book received very favorable reviews; still, most reviewers seem to feel they aren’t doing their job unless they find at least one thing about a book to take exception to. In the case of mine it has typically been my use of words like “healer,” “healer types,” “healer education,” along with the implied suggestion that people exist whose calling really is healing, and that at least some aspects of healing can be taught and learned.
Those who oppose using the word “healer” typically fall into one of a couple of camps. One camp says we are all healers and so we shouldn’t make any distinctions; it’s too elitist to use the word, because it implies that only some people are healers, while the rest of us are not. The other main camp says that only God is the healer, so it is awfully pretentious to call yourself one.
Should we all simply agree to never use the word “healer” again? If we do use it, I suppose we at least need to admit that the word “healer” has been abused in its childhood and it might need to undergo some therapy before we can use it meaningfully. The word is, after all, in our language (and all other languages), and is intended to point to something, but what?
Paradox of Healing
I once met an old man in Scotland who told me that his wife’s cooking had made a compassionate man out of him by reminding him of the suffering of the world. Though what he said sounded terribly funny to me when I first heard it, he was revealing a truth in the connection he made between compassion and awareness of the suffering, one’s own and that of humanity. There are people on this planet who are suffering in ways that are hard for most of us to even conceive. And yet, we are involved with all beings, and this puts us in community with the suffering of the world.
The First Noble Truth of Buddhism says that suffering is here to stay; it is part of the human condition. In the face of this, the archetype of the Wounded Healer might give us some direction in this question of who is a healer. The Wounded Healer is the one who has embraced a fundamental paradox of healing: that we are not healed from our wounds, but rather in our woundedness. The idea here is that a true healer uses her own wounds, her own confusion, pathology and illusions as her starting point. Through her own suffering, she makes common cause with the suffering of the world.
As a result, the wounded healer understands that she is operating in a world that is essentially unhealable. But she also understands that there is plenty of surplus, unnecessary suffering, which is healable. Examples of surplus suffering would be AIDS and other epidemics, genocide and torture, because they arise mostly out of human choice and ignorance. While the fundamental problem of suffering is a given, we can use our skills to reduce surplus suffering.
Another way to express this paradox is that when we locate what is ultimately unhealable, we get our direction. Look at the worst thing you can imagine. Look at what has wounded you most deeply. The darkness you have encountered sooner or later enables you to become a guide to others who are in darkness. The wound you have becomes the source of what you have to give.
The popular image of the “healer” is so inflated that it can sound unbearably immodest to claim to be one. When we use the word “healer” it seems to imply that some of us are healers, while the rest of us aren’t. But healing potential exists in each of us. At the same time, it would be fair to say that this particular quality in a healer is not only a potential but is developed, active and strong. First and foremost, it is important to recognize that it is not so much that the “healer” heals another person, but rather that he or she triggers the other person’s own self-healing potential.
Some people who understand that they have genuine healing qualities can get so puffed up in their image of themselves as healers that they need to undergo some kind of ego bypass operation before they are able to do anybody any good. Or they might go in the opposite direction and get caught up in false modesty, saying to themselves, “who am I to presume to be a healer?” When that happens, they end up neglecting gifts that they actually have. There is, therefore, a need to back off from the inflated, heroic images of the healer, while still doing something to help these qualities—it is not inappropriate to call them spiritual gifts—to express.
In my opinion, we won’t get away from “healer,” because it is a sacred archetype. I wonder if it isn’t possible to grow into a comfortable relationship with what the word represents, without getting carried away with it in an ego-driven way. Those who warn against the use of this word in reference to individuals are, in my mind, issuing the age-old warning against over-identification with any archetype.
Seen archetypically, a musician is a “servant of the muse,” a willing vessel for the spirit of music. A visionary artist is likewise one who is a servant of an archetypal force. We can see this in the talented leader, teacher, minister, doctor. Find the wisest, most dedicated of them, question them deeply and they will probably tell you that they have found a way to be vessels for something larger than themselves, and in a sense, they are serving a spirit.
Why not consider “healer” from this angle? . . . as a servant of the spirit of healing, a spirit present in all of us and throughout all of life, present in the way your skin heals when you cut yourself, present in the way our bodies and emotions and spirits find a way to mend themselves, a spirit akin to the push of nature every spring.
Finally, it is my hope that, whatever we call ourselves, let’s acknowledge our gifts, school them and become skilled and effective, and do something about surplus suffering.
Copyright© 2017 by Jim Gilkeson. All rights reserved.