In two weeks, I’ll be teaching my annual course at Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley. It’s entitled “Writing as a Healing Ministry,” and aimed at those writers, helping professionals and clergy who want to explore the therapeutic application and benefits of expressive writing. “Healing,” is a term I’ll be using often. My writing groups for cancer survivors are informed by the research on writing and healing, and my books on the subject contain the words “heal” or “healing” in the titles. But what does it mean to heal? It’s the question I’ll be asking the people in my PSR class the very first day.
Google the word, “healing,” and you might be surprised at how many variations in the use of the word you’ll find whether from traditional medicine, psychology, religion, and practitioners of alternative healing arts. Look up “healing” in the dictionary, and you’ll find definitions like these: “the natural process by which the body repairs itself,” “tending to cure or restore to health,” “to make sound or whole,” “to cause (an undesirable condition) to be overcome,” or “to patch up or restore to integrity.”
Life hurts for all of us at some time or another. Whether it’s brought on by illness, loss, trauma or other hardships. Terms like “treatment”, “recovery”, or “cure” are common to our vocabulary. But “healing” seems to carries deeper connotations, ones that get to the very heart of being human. Our wounds may be deep, and for a time, we may be enveloped by grief and darkness. Yet slowly, we discover resiliency, courage, the determination to continue. Our healing begins. We slowly make our way back to our lives, but we see our lives differently. To be healed, truly, implies that we a deeper understanding of what it means to be human and knowing what truly matters in our lives. Perhaps healing also involves transformation—a deeper and more profound change in who we are.
In the article “The Meaning of Healing: Transcending Suffering,” author Thomas Egnew suggested that by translating “healing” into behaviors, physicians can enhance their abilities as healers (Annals of Family Medicine, May 2005). He identified three major themes in healing, ones that go well beyond the dictionary’s definition: wholeness (to become or make whole), narrative (a reinterpretation of life), and spirituality (the search to be human; to transcend).
Those same themes were echoed in another article, attributed to Dr. Geffen, on www.lymphomainfo.net, which identified seven levels of healing necessary for an individual to regain wholeness:
- Information or knowledge
- Connecting with others
- Exploring safe and effective ways of tending to our health
- Emotional healing
- Harnessing the power of the mind
- Assessing our life’s purpose and meaning
- A spiritual connection
Body, mind, heart, spirituality–recurring themes found in different interpretations of what it means to heal. Perhaps that is what “becoming whole” suggests–finding peace, discovering grace–something the poet Wendell Berry conveys in “The Peace of Wild Things.”
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
(The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry, 1998)
Explore healing this week. What has been most healing for you during a difficult chapter of your life? What changed? Suppose I’m asking you the question, “what it means to heal?” What would you say?