Healing Hurts: The Myth of The Phoenix & "Am I Doing it Wrong?"
I think we have this notion that healing is the easy part, the part that comes after the suffering; the ascendance. But as we know, from our own experiences, it isn’t. We have this idea that the phoenix likes burning itself alive; that it feels victorious in the flames, that somehow surviving what feels un-survivable is immediately triumphant… That this crispy, scarred, traumatized, amazingly resilient creature is like “lemme just brush off these ashes real quick and let’s pop some bottles because I’M FEELIN’ GOOOOOOOD”. And then we expect this from ourselves. We shame ourselves with trite little pearls like “the past is the past”, “it could have been worse”, “today’s a new day” (Can you *hear* my eyes rolling?)
The healing usually involves reckoning with the darkest parts of the suffering, often those that perhaps we couldn’t bare to touch at the time—healing demands that we make the endlessly brave choice to revisit those places and face them now, when arguably we don’t really “have to”. How does the saying go? “The truth will set you free. But not until it is finished with you.” (From Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, emphasis mine.)
It is through this brave revisiting that we take a stand for our wholeness, instead of settling for a surface-level emotional “safety” that can leave us feeling more protected in the short term, but ultimately much less alive. The big secret about healing is this: it’s not supposed to feel good. It’s supposed to hurt. Not sadistically, not as a form of premeditated self-torture, but because it is often a re-processing of incredibly painful things. And these things need our attention in order to heal. Like, we can put them in the freezer until we are ready (e.g. safe enough, supported enough, grounded enough) to deal with them—and we should—but when we take them out again, they’re going to smell. They are not somehow neutralized by time. It isn’t true that time heals all wounds. It takes time for wounds to heal, yes, but it isn’t the time that does it. It’s us.
It’s our willingness (our courage and readiness and belief that it will be worth it) to stay present as we wade into the hard stuff, with the capacity to be with it this time; rather than pushing it down/away, or letting it swallow us whole. There is the opportunity for neurological magic in these moments of re-processing—this is how the healing happens: the emotional repair we feel when we are able to hold the past pain along with the experience of present-moment “I am okay” is a reflection of the very real repair taking place at the neurological level. But you know how scabs are itchy? And people are always like, “Good—that means it’s healing!”—Like, what a miraculous and frustrating way for an organism to be built, is my point.
My point is: the hurting is part of the healing. And I know that’s disappointing and kind of a raw deal, but it’s important to remember. Because I think sometimes we quit when we’re alllllmost there; we misinterpret the phoenix’s message for us and we’re like “I’m not strong, this still hurts, I don’t even know how to heal right, it’ll never get better, what’s the point?” and we throw in the towel because no one has ever told us:
1. Oh yeah, healing? Supposed to hurt—totally normal.
2. YOU GOT THIS
3. I don’t know who phoenixes go to for support, but now is the time to call on your people,
and 4. There actually is a really, really good part—it comes next; keep going.
Here’s the deal: if we accept the premise that the phoenix is actually suffering, that what it takes for that bird to get through the fire of its own healing and rebirth process is basically the hardest shit ever; and that this creature has the innate constitution to withstand the pain of the fire even though it suuuuuuuuucks, then this is also true: that phoenix is a WAY bigger badass than the one we made up who was, like, chilling in there doing some kind of fire-breathing party trick!
The healing hurts. It’s not triumphant right away. Maybe not for a long time. But if the phoenix is our teacher in all of this: there is new life. And the very real possibility of flying. I’d say it’s worth it.