The potential in our wounds

This article was first published in the May/June 2014 issue of Branches magazine (volume 27, number 2, page 6) on the theme of Potential. Branches magazine is a print only magazine available in the Indianapolis area.

I keep a gas can filled with gasoline in my garage for powering my lawn mower. I treat this container carefully because gasoline’s high flammability has so much potential for destructive fires and explosions. On the other hand, this dangerous flammability is also precisely what makes it so useful in the running of my lawn mower (not to mention my automobile). This high flammability is gasoline’s potential. It is as much a potential that can cause harm as it is a potential for good and usefulness. It all depends on how it is used.

Potential is, at its most basic, the energy that feeds possibility. It describes all the things that fuel our actions and includes our physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual potential to do either good or harm in the world. Potential is itself a neutral quality; it is only what we choose to do with that potential that determines its impact.

For most of us, the consideration of a person’s potential prompts thoughts about their talents, skills, and abilities. The same is true when we think of our own potential. We may list our education and training, the skills we’ve demonstrated in various roles, or the qualifications we’ve obtained. These do indeed all contribute to our potential, but there is another source tremendous potential that we often overlook: the tremendous potential to be found in our deepest wounds.

Deep wounds bring a flare of some of the most intense emotional energy we experience in our lives. When in the midst of such pain, the grief and anger and fear can be overwhelming. We are so raw and sensitized in those moments that everyone and everything around us seems to exacerbate it, and we are prone to lashing out at those closest to us with pain-fueled rage that has the potential to incinerate relationships and spread our pain to others.

As we come to recognize the potential destructiveness of this approach, it is tempting to try to shut down our emotions to escape our own suffering and to ensure that we don’t spread it to others. We seal away the experience and its attendant emotions in a vault buried deep in the underground of our soul, where we think it is safely contained forever.

Like the old buried fuel tanks at gas stations, however, these emotional vaults always spring a leak sooner or later. This stored pain first seeps into the surrounding soil of our hearts and minds, coloring our experience of life. Then the fumes begin to emerge into the air, where they form explosive clouds that are ignited by unsuspecting bystanders, causing the same scorched earth and destruction that we had hoped to avoid. Only now we have even less control over these emotional storms than we would otherwise because we have lost touch with the source of the problem.

This makes it seem as if there is no potential for anything good or useful to come from our wounds. Neither reacting from the space of the woundedness nor burying the pain of the wounds makes any difference in the outcome, but those are not our only choices. There is another way. Like gasoline, it is possible to use even these flammable, painful emotions for good. When we recognize that there is potential for good to come out of even the most painful of experiences, we are better able to move to a place of healing—a process that, by its very nature, transmutes the wound into a source of healing for others.

We see this in those who have faced domestic violence and are able to channel the energy of their healed experience into becoming advocates for better resources for those who are still trapped in those situations. We see it in those who have lost children and who turn their grief into the powerful compassion that is necessary to be able to sit with other parents whose children have died and offer the comfort of one who has walked that same path.

Finding the potential for good in the wounds life gives us is not an easy task. It often takes a lot of time for the healing process to progress far enough for us to even begin to get a glimpse of the potential gift that our own healing can allow us to give to others. It means sitting with the pain and anger and fear and allowing ourselves to feel them fully. It requires wrestling with what happened to us, often with the help of others, to reclaim our wholeness in the wake of the wounding.

Believing that it is possible to redeem the experience—even when we can’t see how—can help facilitate the healing process. This third way provides a way through the pain that turns its potential from destructiveness to a gift for the world around us.