“A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately at peace with himself. What a man can be, he must be.” (Abraham Maslow)
I have collected quotations for many years—inspirational quotes, humorous ones, profound, wise, and enigmatic ones. Hundreds of them are tacked onto cork board that lines one wall of my home office. Many are yellowed with age or so faded that I can barely read them. I often find myself standing in front of this assemblage and reacquainting myself with wise thinkers and thoughts, with ahas that speak directly to the heart of an attentive life. It’s always a pleasure to find a new quote and squeeze it onto the wall. There will be no Marie Kondo-ing of this space.
One quote that found me a couple of years ago, and was also immediately given both wall space and a spot on my writing desk, is by Sean Thomas Dougherty:
“Right now, there is someone out there with a wound in the exact shape of your words.”
I learned only recently that this quote is almost the entirety of a poem by Dougherty, entitled “Why Bother?”
As a writer, I find Dougherty’s words both comforting and inspiring. Even for those (many) of us who can’t not write, don’t we still occasionally ask: Why bother? Why am I toiling away on something that may never be seen? … Why does it matter when the world is in such turmoil? … How could my words possibly make a difference? (Interestingly, the very same questions can be asked about kindness, but it is writing I am talking about today.)
Dougherty’s poem answers that question: because my words might be just what someone needs to hear … and what they need to heal the wounds they bear.
That someone might be a person we’ll never meet, or perhaps someone with whom we have a connection, but it may also be ourselves. The wound we write to heal may very well be our own.
And just as possible, the wound may be the world’s. Our tiny cluster of words might be just what is needed to help turn a tide, offer hope, or restore trust. Seen in that light, surely writing is a secularly sacred act.
For many years, I worked closely with health care providers, and the concept of the “wounded healer” was often discussed. As I understand it, the term originated with Carl Jung and referred to those practitioners who seek to help others in order to heal their own woundedness. Later, I heard this term used to describe health care professionals who were worn down by a grueling medical system that devalued them and sometimes diluted their spirits. Woundedness was something whispered about and admitted only in the safest of settings.
Professor and theologian Henri Nouwen wrote eloquently on the topic of woundedness:
“Nobody escapes being wounded. We are all wounded people, whether physically, emotionally, mentally, or spiritually. The main question is not, ‘How can we hide our wounds?’ so we don’t have to be embarrassed, but ‘How can we put our woundedness in the service of others?’ When our wounds cease to be a source of shame, and become a source of healing, we have become wounded healers.”
And one of my favorite authors and thinkers, Rachel Naomi Remen, MD, frequently addresses this subject:
“Wounding and healing are not opposites. They’re part of the same thing. It is our wounds that enable us to be compassionate with the wounds of others. It is our limitations that make us kind to the limitations of other people. It is our loneliness that helps us to find other people or to even know they’re alone with an illness. I think I have served people perfectly with parts of myself I used to be ashamed of.”
The wise Dr. Remen further says, “Life is as complex as we are. Sometimes our vulnerability is our strength, our fear develops our courage, and our woundedness is the road to our integrity. It is not an either/or world.”
Is it presumptuous to suggest that writers are also wounded healers? I think of all the times I’ve turned to books or poetry when in pain, or all the times I’ve sought healing in my own writing. Where we find our comfort may not be as important as knowing where to look. I don’t think there’s a hierarchy of worthiness. The solace one gets from reading P.G. Wodehouse is no less valuable than Shakespeare or Tolstoy (and surely more accessible).
Perhaps for many of us, the challenge is to write our pain without becoming self-indulgent or self-pitying. And maybe to get to that place, we need to go through a putrid stage of woe-is-me. As long as we don’t decide to set up permanent residence there, we’re still on the right path.
Another quotation I’ve had on my wall for decades is by Rabindranath Tagore:
“The song I came to sing is left unsung. I spent my life stringing and unstringing my instrument.”
I find this both unbearably sad and sweetly inspiring. It holds the promise that each of us has a song—or perhaps many—that we were meant to sing, and maybe if we can manage to get out of our own way we can at last add our voice to the universe.
I tend to be a linear and analytical person. I like it when I start an idea and it leads me to a logical conclusion. I’m never entirely comfortable with loose ends or paths without clear destinations.
Today is different. I can appreciate the messiness of the world, where wounds heal in ways we may not have anticipated, or perhaps they never fully heal. I see the value of bringing forth brokenness and celebrating its beauty. I’m okay ending with no apparent conclusion, even ending mid-sen
“In the depths of every wound we have survived is the strength we need to live. The wisdom our wounds can offer us is a place of refuge. Finding this is not for the faint of heart. But then, neither is life.” (Rachel Naomi Remen)