Today my children and I read “How the Bear Clan Learned to Heal: An Iroquois Story” from Angela McAllister’s A Year Full of Stories. It goes like this:
Three young hunters were running home one evening, when a rabbit jumped out ahead of them and sat in the middle of the trail. The hunters stopped. They’d already caught plenty of game, but each one reached for his bow, plucked an arrow from his quiver, and shot at the rabbit. To their surprise, the arrows returned without a spot of blood.
As they reached for a second arrow, the rabbit disappeared. In its place stood a bent old man.
“I am sick,” said the old man weakly. “Help me find food and a place to rest.” The young hunters didn’t want to be bothered by the old man. Ignoring his plea, they put away their arrows and ran on down the trail. They didn’t notice the old man turn and follow.
When he reached the hunters’ settlement, the old man saw many lodges. In front of each lodge was a skin hanging on a pole. This was the sign of the clan within.
The old man stopped at the lodge of the Wolf clan and asked the elder woman for shelter, but she wouldn’t let him in. “We don’t want any sickness here,” she said. So he shuttled on.
The young women at the Beaver lodge insisted they had no food to share. The Turtle clan and Deer clan both sent him away. The old man asked for help at the sign of the Hawk, Snipe, and Heron, but everyone shook their heads.
Night fell, and the air grew cold. At last, he came to the lodge of the Bear Clan. When the Bear Clan mother saw the sick old man, she lifted the blanket at her door and welcomed him inside. She gave him a bowl of warm corn mash and spread soft skins for him to rest on. The old man was grateful. The next day, he told her what herbs to fetch from the woods to make him well, and soon he was healed.
The old man stayed with the Bear Clan mother, but a few days later, he became sick again. As before, she cared for him. He told her what roots and leaves to use for medicine, and she made him well.
Many times the old man fell ill: once with a fever, another time with pain, then a rash and a cough. Each time, he instructed her about the flowers and plants to use for his condition and she listened and learned well. Before long, she knew more about healing than anyone in all the clans.
One evening, as they sat together under the stars, the old man gave the clan mother thanks. “I was sent to earth by the Great Spirit to teach people the secrets of healing,” he said. “You were the only one who showed pity and welcomed me at your fireside. Now I have taught you how to use plants and roots to heal the sick, and from this day, all the other clans will come to learn from the Bear Clan how to heal, and the Bear Clan will be the greatest and the strongest of all.”
Then the clan mother was filled with joy. She gazed up at the sky and thanked the Great Spirit for his precious gift. But when she turned again to the old man, he had disappeared. All she saw was a rabbit running away down the trail.
The abuse survivor sphere has taught me just how true the lessons of this story are.
In order to help others heal, I must listen to them share their needs. I must acknowledge, understand, and meet those initial needs–and I must be prepared to meet many more varied needs as they are gradually expressed.
I must understanding that healing takes a great deal of time, and that if I want to become a good, capable, effective agent of healing, I have to commit for the long haul.
I must maintain a posture of humble attentiveness that whole time. I should constantly expect to need to take in new information and apply it.
I have to be willing to go out of my way again and again and again to bring in resources to help the wounded.
I should expect the recovery to be lengthy and involved and taxing, primarily for the hurting party, but also for me.
I should understand that what I gain from the privilege of caring intimately and faithfully for someone is a greater gift than I could ever give them. That I am not the source of their rescue and restoration: God is. When I enter into another’s suffering, I witness the work God forges in the interplay between their expression of needs and hurt and my acceptance and tending.
In the comprehension brought about by that witness and engagement, I am renewed.
And most importantly, I should understand that healing is primarily the work of the wounded. I am the student and the servant. The one healing is the healer. I follow her lead and provide support–but she does the work of knowing her pain, choosing her struggle, and asking for help.
I might provide resources, treatment, time, expertise: but she is the one who heals.
We best serve our wounded when we entrust them with their own fates: when we affirm their agency, their autonomy, their responsibility as their own primary caretakers.
When we defer to them like this, we learn a great deal about how also to look after ourselves.