For four hours each day this past week, I met with a group of clergy, divinity students, writers, and others, all enrolled in the course, “Writing as a Healing Ministry,” which I teach annually as part of the summer session offerings at Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California. While most came to the course with an intention, however loosely formed, to use writing in their ministry or in service to others, the experience of the week required that they do what every writer or healer must do: begin with themselves, writing from their hearts, their life experiences, reflecting upon the words and themes that emerged. While they had not necessarily come together to write out of illness, trauma or suffering, nevertheless, their writing took them deep within themselves, to difficult chapters of their own lives, questions and vulnerabilities that sometimes cast a shadow over their present. Throughout the week, we wrote, reflected on what was written, shared our stories aloud and plumbed the deeper reaches of our inner worlds.
“A man’s work is…,” Albert Camus wrote, “a slow trek to rediscover, through detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened.” Writing is one of those art forms that can lead to such discoveries. Suffering, pain, and hardship are part of the human condition. Our lives take place in a constant process of breaking down and being remade. Whether from illness or trauma, parts of our lives are sometimes taken away or changed, but as Arthur Frank reminds us, “recovery is only worth as much as what you learn about the life you are regaining.” Frank knows this well. His memoir, At the Will of the Body, documents his recovery from cancer and heart attack. “I wanted to discover what else I might be,” he said. “Writing is part of that discovery.”
Frank was also talking about witnessing: the act of telling our stories and having them heard and honored. Witnessing, through writing and sharing our experiences, helps us discover the meaning inherent in the events of our lives. It is at the heart of writing for healing, the spiritual journey, or writing memoir and personal essays. The daily ritual in our week at PSR involved not only discussion and dialogue, but writing—deeply and honestly—reflecting on what we had written, and sharing our stories with one another. The power of witnessing and being witnessed–truly listened to–by others was profound. In that community of sharing and deep, non-judgmental listening, we uncovered and honored what was sacred in our lives—what truly mattered and why. As Patricia Hampl once described, we wrote, ourselves into knowing.
“The greatest thing you can ever give someone else is your attention,” Rachel Remen said, “not with judgment but just listening.” As I read Remen’s words, I remembered when years ago, I suffered to make sense of a husband’s untimely death by drowning and my conflicted feelings of sorrow, anger and betrayal. I began to write poetry and each week, take a poem to my therapy session. A ritual emerged. I would read my poem aloud to my therapist. He listened, without questioning or interpretation, but responding simply with just two words, “Thank you.” It was enough somehow. I felt heard and affirmed. Not only was that experience deeply transformative, but it became a critical influence in shaping my approach to leading expressive writing groups.
Suffering is part of the human condition. It comes from many different experiences, but it needs to be honored. By creating stories or poems out of our experiences, we are able to make sense of our lives and discover the meaning of them. “I did not want my questions answered,” Frank wrote of his illness, “I wanted my experience shared.” When we act as witness to others’ life stories, listening deeply and without judgment, we help each other hear the truth of the story we are trying to tell. It is enough to say, “thank you,” and honor what has been shared with us. We cannot impose change on another person, but we can, by listening, help them discover what is important for them. As Wallace Stegner wrote, “The only life we know well, the one in which we are the ultimate authority, is our own. The only experience to which we can bear witness is that which we have personally endured or survived.”
Has there been a time in your life that you felt truly “heard?” When another’s ability to give you the gift of attention, of listening deeply and without judgment, helped you discover new insights or meaning in a difficult or painful time, or simply made you feel that your life story was affirmed and honored? Write about how it felt to be truly listened to—to have the truth of your life affirmed.