Yesterday, I spent the day on the New River of West Virginia with my 16-year-old son Evan. The New River Gorge is a majestically rugged and beautiful place -the kind of place you remember for the rest of your life. So, I wanted Evan to see it, feel the thrill of the rapids, and experience the excitement of catching 50 fish in a day.
Our trip was led by Ty, a 50ish guide who grew up on the river, and who learned how to paddle rafts through the potentially lethal Class 4 rapids by the age of 14. Ty was full of great stories – a basic requirement of every river guide. At one point, he pointed out where his granddaddy was born, which then led him into other stories about how much West Virginia has changed since he was “a free-range kid.”
West Virginia has been decimated by the opioid crisis, consequently, Ty told us stories of how it’s now too easy for people to ”do noth’n.” They can stay home, get drunk, or take drugs and receive more money from the government than by working a local job. “My heart breaks for the kids, there are 66 that the state had to take away from their parents; I adopted one – he’s just four now, but going on 30. I just couldn’t sleep at night not knowing where that boy was going to be sleeping himself.”
Ty clearly has a post-graduate degree from the School of Life. “Me -I just can’t do that, I just hustle,” he said, “I always have. I hated school, but I eventually figured out that I had to finish it, and I ended up buying this business. Now I guide hunts and fishing trips all over the country. My daughter is in Vet School at Mississippi State – she loves horses – we have three. I don’t know where she got all her smarts from.”
But I do.
Ty’s father was a chain-smoking Vietnam veteran trying to fight off the demons that war can put in a young man’s mind (he eventually straightened himself out and became a lineman. Ty credits him for instilling in him his current work ethic). He started out like many other people in the area who eventually die young from obesity, hypertension, and diabetes.
It’s a tragic thing, as most of the people there are so kind and polite. Too many of them are just stuck, unsure of what to do about it, and unsure if life is still worth living. But not Ty, he’s full of life, with a dash sorrow. Ty is a survivor -because he chooses to be one.
Many of us are in similar circumstances. We have been wounded in the past by various experiences, and perhaps are in a current situation that feels like it will never end. Consequently, sometimes the person we need to be helping the most is ourselves, as we forget about what it is that we need to be doing to stay healthy on both a physical and emotional level. We rush through each day, trying to meet every commitment with a smile on our face, and forget about the free-range child inside of us that we left behind long ago.
Our tragic pasts and wounded hearts can be anchors around our necks for the rest of our life, or they can be opportunities to grow, become wiser, and help others more significantly.
And how we chose to face those memories can be the deciding factor in whether or not we will be able to make our life’s pain worthwhile, as it’s the only pathway to transforming sorrow into small -and sometimes large- victories. Taking the right perspective towards life’s challenges -the worst of what has happened to us – can help us build a more meaningful, and purposeful life.
So, there’s nothing wrong with being a wounded healer, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to help others. But it can work against us when we are too focused on helping everyone around us while ignoring what we need for ourselves.
The hard truth is that we cannot save everyone around us. The hard truth is that the only person we can save for certain is our self from ourselves.
And it’s never easy.
We can inspire others, we can lead them toward greater realizations and toward higher levels of health. We can share our wisdom, knowledge and provide guidance just like Ty did for us, but the reality is that we must each pass through the river of life by themselves. The reality is: Nobody can do it for us.
In life, we come into it alone, and we leave it alone. And what few people realize, is that in-between, we can choose to walk alongside others and help them along the way, but our paths are ultimately our own to choose – and that’s why Avrom King said, we must “choose to choose.”
The truth is that as wounded healers, we want to help others because we can see ourselves in their brokenness. We want to help others because it’s uncomfortable for us to witness suffering which is so similar to our own. We want to help others because we’re convinced that if we help another person improve their situation, it will likely have a positive influence on our situation as well.
So, we want to help others because our deepest desire is to heal ourselves as part of that process. We also want to heal ourselves, but we are afraid that if we try to do it in a more direct fashion, we will fail. So, we ignore addressing our needs more directly. Instead, we push it to the back of our mind, and then try to keep ourselves busy enough that things like that can’t bubble to the surface and bother us.
But eventually, we must realize that our life is of our own making -that we have a lot of control by simply choosing; that we can influence a lot of outcomes if we just step up and face the rapids with courage…that we can control our space -and to a large degree-our safety. And this life truth is jeopardized only when we decide that we are more comfortable compromising our boundaries than we are with getting on with the hard work necessary to define and defend them.
We need to learn that defining and defending our boundaries isn’t an act of selfishness, rather it’s justifiable because we have worked so hard to earn our freedom, a freedom which then allows us the privilege of being able to help others in deeply significant ways.
So, we need to step up and face our fears…our personal metaphorical river full of scary rapids and undertows, and do so by holding tight to our principles, our boundaries, while knowing our limits.
And at that point, we can start to tell our stories; and some might be willing to listen, and others might even change for the better along the way.
Paul A. Henny, DDS
P.S. If you are interested in having an awesome WV river experience, you can reach Ty @ firstname.lastname@example.org