I remember a meeting of the PICU Steering Committee in 2000 where I had a small talk to give the Attending doctors and nurse managers about Family Centered Care and the changes my little group was making in the culture of the Unit. We were all committed to being a caring community caring for the needs of children, so I didn’t need to be so nervous. But there I was, my voice quivering as I spoke from my notes about the need for staff sensitization to the family’s perspective. When I got to the part where I said that in addition to the cutting-edge medical care we delivered in the PICU, we were “privileged to walk through the lives of our patients and their families, and we needed to communicate that,” I was on the verge of tears and could see that everyone noticed my shaking hands. It was a more personal issue than I knew.
I think a lot about how people come to choose their work, how people are drawn to support causes close to their hearts, where that impulse originates, and its meaning.
I recall my involvement in a small grassroots chapter of CAPVI in the eighties, [California Association of Parents of the Visually Impaired] as a parent and an organizer, and how the most unlikely partnerships often emerged when we needed donors to help support the work of parents of blind and visually impaired children.
Where did those generous donors come from? I wondered. I suspected that somewhere along the way, this or that person had been sensitized to issues of blind children, somehow. Or families of kids with disabilities. Or their unique challenges and frustrations and obstacles.
There had to be an event, or many events, in their lives that opened them up to the pain and real-life issues of blind or disabled children in families who were often perplexed about how to navigate the new territory they found themselves in when their baby was diagnosed. Those families hadn’t planned to be there at all. It was like boarding a plane for Paris and having it land in Oslo, and giving up their Parisian expectations to learn the language and the terrain of such a different place, so different from what they planned.
I was sure that some life experience or event had sensitized the strong supporters we found at CAPVI because that’s how it works. Our benefactors were not “outsiders.” They were attuned in a heartfelt way to what CAPVI families suffered and needed.
In a supportive and non-medical way, I suspected they were wounded healers.
In Greek mythology, Chiron was an immortal centaur who was accidentally wounded by a poisoned arrow, an arrow painted with hydra-venom. One version of the myth says because he was immortal, he was unable to die from that wound. He suffered a life of excruciating pain and because of his suffering he became a legendary healer in the medical arts in ancient Greece.
In 1951, Carl Jung first used the term “wounded healer.” He wrote that only a wounded physician could heal effectively. Jung drew upon the myth of Chiron and made it one of the most fundamental archetypes of human history and modern medicine.
Viktor Frankl argues in Man’s Search for Meaning that “presence” comes from leaning into suffering, not from tensing against it.
We are all together in this imperfect world. As a result of our constant search for meaning, we evolve toward greater cohesion and solidarity. We are drawn to the work we need to do, for our own selves.
From my own experience, I can say that suffering may enable a person to appreciate the suffering of others, even to feel it in empathy. But it does not automatically result in compassion, especially if our sense of self is totally separate, like an individual wave in a vast ocean, with no felt-sense of the ocean we are a part of.
Every person who reads this has had an injury or a trauma in his or her life – some more intense and prolonged than others – and every one of us has been sensitized, with or without our knowledge to choose the work we do. The reminders we need, and the training we seek, can allow us to know we are the same, we are all in this together, that we do walk in the shoes of those we serve.
The sense of separateness is an illusion. Everything in the world is interconnected; and from this perspective, another person’s suffering is our own suffering.
I’ve learned that true compassion arises naturally when our sense of separateness begins to fade away. We can aid that process by being mindful, by meditating and by opening our hearts to our own discomfort and pain, and being compassionate toward ourselves. When the barrier of separateness begins to crumble, compassion flows outwards from the heart, unconditionally.