In Old Norse “health” was helge, meaning sacred or holy. In Old English it was hal, which meant “whole.” “Heal” in Old English could also mean, “to make whole.”
The culture of Western medicine has often made healing a zero-sum game, and wholeness isn’t even a category in the Physicians Desk Reference. To make matters worse, our culture is also fixated on personal gain so that healing is synonymous with curing. We get fixed or we are broken, we get cured or we’re ill, we are of sound mind or we’re crazy. It is as if every malady of the body and mind is a Rubicon we cross and are well — healed or cured — or we don’t, and so we are not.
Our success with pharmacology and surgical treatments has muddied the waters. Illnesses that were once a death sentence can now be considered chronic because of effective treatments we can live with for years and even decades. So are we then healed, healing, or only sort of?
The Twelve Steps recovery program created a similar dilemma for a culture that hates ambiguity. In Alcoholics Anonymous someone in recovery is still stricken with the disease of alcoholism and will never be cured. It is a chronic disease with only a minute-to-minute or day-at-a-time recovery.
So let’s talk about a more authentic notion of healing. The opposite of being healed is not loss, illness, or death. Rather, the antithesis of healing is fragmentation.
When we are in a process of healing we are experiencing “wholeness” or the reconnecting of elements in our lives that had become fragmentary or disconnected. We become whole after a loss when we incorporate that loss into our own sense of wholeness — it becomes part of us that we embrace even with the pain of grief attached. This is as true of a physical amputation — the loss of the part is now part of our wholeness — as it is with emotional loss due to death or divorce.
Healing means the loss is incorporated as a permanent part of ourselves that we accept and make peace with, and which then we actually learn and grow from as a result. It isn’t pain-free and in no sense is it “fixed,” and yet it becomes part of what makes us whole instead of an irritant that continues to fragment us.
We erroneously talk about achieving “balance” in life when it is wholeness we should look after. Wholeness absorbs moments of balance as well as our awkwardness and times of falling and failure. Healing means that we begin to recognize the connections between all of it and within them a mysterious sense of gratitude rises up. All the gains and losses, joys and sorrows, rejections and affirmations suddenly seem like a tapestry of great art rather than a fragmented life of good and bad, pain and gain, success and sorrow.
Wholeness (healing) happens as we recognize the connections running through our lives like the threads of a tapestry. We suddenly recognize a moment of great joy had its roots in a former sorrow, or the thread appears between a forgotten loss or failure and a more recent sense of grace. Healing may include a cure, but it always includes a renewed sense of connection, within our own life and even to all of life.