henry david thoreau

Physician, Heal Thyself

I heard an interesting story about a wise man recently. This wise man said that when he was younger, he set out to change the world. He strived, toiled, and labored and then came to the realization that the world had too many problems and he didn’t have enough time. So, then he decided to focus on changing his country. He strived, toiled, and labored and again, came to the conclusion that he didn’t have time for that either. Frustrated, he changed his focus to changing his city. Surely this was much more attainable. Again, he strived, toiled, and labored and soon realized that changing his city was an endeavor like the others – it would take several lifetimes.

And then, the epiphany: “I can change myself! If only I had spent my precious time on earth focused on changing myself FIRST…maybe I would have had a shot at changing my city, my country, maybe even the world.”

I am convinced that there is no cause too important or too big to overshadow the need to change oneself. Even the trauma inflicted on us by an outside party, the oppression brought on by another, the pain we are made to feel…all cannot and should not render self-reflection and self-transformation irrelevant.

I was born in a poor country. My family would be considered middle class by our country’s standards at the time. But we experienced enough hardship, pain, and trauma and saw enough oppression and injustice that, growing up, I had an inherent affinity for the downtrodden and marginalized. I grew up with a strong sense of justice and rejection of elitism. A sentiment akin to anti-establishment developed in me as I grew up. As an adult, I have become accustomed to instinctively siding with the smaller guy, the weaker guy, the under-resourced, the marginalized…the one who was hurting.

There is plenty of hurt to go around. ISIS terrorizing innocents in the Middle East and Europe; poor nations claiming economic growth while their poor sink deeper into more despair than ever before; or, closer to home, the enmity between police (white police in particular) and the black community (black men in particular). It would seem we are besieged by trauma.

Warsan Shire (Somali-British poet) writes:

“Late that night I held an atlas in my lap

Ran my fingers across the whole world

And whispered: where does it hurt?

It answered: Everywhere. Everywhere. Everywhere.”

The word ‘everywhere’ is interesting. It has been hurting ‘everywhere’…for a very long time. It’s just now more evident since the hurt is in France, in Belgium, in Germany…yes, even in the US.

The bombings, the mass shootings, the abuse of power, the injustice, the hatred, the bitterness, the steady diet of unpleasantness that seems to hang over us like a dark cloud.

“The world is out of control!” say casual observers in the industrialized West.

There is a collective rolling of the eyes in the rest of the world. Things have been ‘out of control’ in the numerous hot spots around the world for decades. Just take a look at the former colonies of the West, be it in Africa or other parts of the developing world. These nations have been evolving through a hurricane of hurt that has felt out of control for a long time, yet outside of the full view of the casual observer.

Through this evolution, there have been countless leaders, change agents, revolutionaries, virtuous men and women who have tried to address the turmoil and heal the hurt. Some have succeeded, some have died trying, many have done so in obscurity. But at the end of it, the world still hurts…everywhere.

Does it continue to hurt because that’s our destiny as a human species?

No. It continues to hurt because there are too many broken people trying to fix a broken world. Their efforts are not to be maligned. After all, they are trying while the rest of us are watching and waiting for things to get better.

Henry David Thoreau nailed it when he wrote in “Civil Disobedience”: “There are nine hundred and ninety-nine patrons of virtue to one virtuous man.”

Back to my point…

What if we took the wise man’s experience to heart. What would happen if the ones on the front lines, the leaders, the activists, the revolutionaries, even the ‘patrons of virtue’ changed themselves and fixed themselves, first. I’m not talking about letting circumstances and external factors change you. I am talking about a proactive change that can only come after rigorous and uncomfortable self-reflection…and a reliance on the power of God to affect transformation.

This does not imply that there is some checklist on personal growth that has to be marked off. We are always growing and changing. On a practical level, this is about self-awareness. This is about willingness to put aside the hurt in the world for a moment and diagnose oneself.

“Medice, cura te ipsum” / “Physician, heal thyself” – Luke 4:23

A leader who knows himself is a leader who can heal himself. A leader who is healed and whole leads a virtuous struggle. In himself he recognizes a microcosm of the world – an organism in pain that is diagnosed, that undergoes the process of healing, that is then transformed. New ideas, new thinking, new dialogue and new approaches are birthed from leaders who have been transformed. And maybe, these leaders can help our world begin to heal…everywhere.