The Old Rugged Path: An INTERACTIVE Display that Promotes Healing

by Deborah Grassman

I created a wall hanging to adorn the hospice hallway. It’s a ten foot long path with captioned graphic figures along its way. Kevin, one of the nurses, dubbed it “The Old Rugged Path.”

Each figure on the Path symbolizes a staff member and their shadow story with the graphics and captions depicting our various struggles. Rocks along the way create barriers. A sign lets patients and their families know that these are stories from their doctors, nurses, social workers, and chaplains. A box of paper footprints hangs nearby, inviting onlookers to add their footprint with their own story onto the path.

Many stories symbolize feelings that have been shoved into hiding. Chaplain Dan’s graphic is a man peering out from inside a toilet captioned with: “I know I’m not the same person I was 8 years ago. I give the credit to God. I also give credit to a good therapist and some Prozac. I had a lot of wounds to heal. It was hard work. Sometimes, it was painful. But, my-oh-my, the rewards! I’m free at last!”

Some stories address control issues which people frequently use to avoid facing difficulties. One staff member’ had stuffed her loneliness in her shadow, covering it up by becoming overly responsible. Her story shows a woman holding up the world: “Here I am. I can do it. Please let me be the martyr. As the oldest of 8 kids, I learned how to care for others and lost my childhood in the process. I didn’t know how to say ‘no’ or care for myself. Taking care of everyone else left me sad and lonely. I clutched for control. Fifty years later, I’m still learning how to let go. It’s refreshing and freeing and I’m realizing I don’t have control in the first place.”

There’s also a picture of a workaholic woman who had stuffed her feelings of shame and degradation. Her caption reads: “I’ve responded to the severe abuse of my childhood by resolving not to be victimized again. I, and no one else, would control my destiny. I have worked fast and furious to make sure everything was packaged neat and tidy. Lists and haste have helped me accomplish my mission. My job, health, family, even death – were mine to control. In Hospice, I’m learning that surrendering control is scary but brings peace and healing. I’m discovering the value of letting go!”

Similarly, a picture of a woman jogging says: “I had been running as fast as I could from those things in myself I didn’t want to see, especially negative feelings. Anger, fear, pain, guilt – I disowned those parts of me, thinking I could outdistance them if I ran fast enough. Now, I’m willing to own those parts of myself even though it still scares me sometimes.”

Recovering scattered pieces of broken self isn’t always easy. It sometimes requires going into the wilderness of the soul. In the wilderness, we find our heart.

Healing the Community of Broken Healers

“To be a healing community, we have to heal our community,” Dr. Hull, our hospice and palliative care physician said one day. So we composed a ritual to help us do this. As a wounded healer community, once each month, we remove the “Old Rugged Path” from the wall and place it on the floor. We gather our chairs around it and tell our stories.

When they come to powwow, Natives pass a “talking stick” to everyone gathered within the circle. About a foot long, it is often adorned with beads and feathers. Two rules are observed: only the person holding the stick at that moment can speak, everyone else must listen; whatever that person says while holding the stick has to be truthful, no pretenses or coverups.

I recognized the power of this format to elicit deeper and more meaningful stories that can emanate from the hero within. The format also levels the playing field, equalizing the power for all participants regardless of position; no voice dominates, and no voice is excluded.

At our first meeting, we didn’t have a stick. A smooth, black rock was on the table, so we used that. It became our touchstone. I added two rules of my own: “We are free to pass the rock without speaking; no apology needed. Also, we must resist the urge to give advice or philosophize. Instead, we each tell a personal story or experience about the topic.”

Monthly sessions usually start by asking if anyone is seeking counsel. Someone identifies a need, and the touchstone is passed. Sessions have included multiple themes. One staff member spoke of a family death, and the rest of us responded with our own stories of recovering from a death or loss. Another time a nurse said she was feeling “lost,” which elicited stories when others felt lost and uncertain. One nurse said she was having difficulties with a family member’s alcohol usage; the rest of us responded with our own stories of how alcohol had wounded people we loved. An adult son moving back into a parent’s home prompted story-telling of lifestyle changes and boundary setting with older children. One session responded to the need of a staff member whose young adult son had stopped any contact with her. All responded with stories of children (sometimes themselves) rebelling against parents. One staff member noted changes in health as she aged, realizing that she might need to consider retirement. The rock was passed to gather stories about our own experiences of aging and illness.

Sometimes the sessions might involve confrontation. Marie privately confronted Jane about Jane’s anger. Jane was surprised, expressing little insight into its cause. In a subsequent pass-the-rock session, Jane asked for stories about how the rest of us fight or flight anger. As a result, she realized that she camouflaged her anger with chaos and drama. Her journey to meet her shadowed anger is now depicted with a graphic on our Old Rugged Path. It shows a woman sternly pointing her finger, saying: “Hello anger. I’ve tried every way I know to ignore you. I prefer to get dramatic instead, saying I was ‘ruined.’ I’m reclaiming my power now. I wasn’t ruined. I was angry. I can say it instead of being defeated by it. Hello anger. You’re my new friend.”

We don’t always talk about personal issues. Sessions might address conflicting feelings about taking care of a difficult patient: “What inside me keeps me from loving this patient? What keeps me from responding graciously? What button is this patient pushing inside me and why?” Once there was a general climate of grouchiness on the unit. Staff chose to address it by inventing a “grouchiness scale.” Zero was mellow and 10 was irritable and grouchy. Then each of us was asked to address this further: “I’m a ____ right now. What I need to do to lower that number by one is ______.” Sometimes questions focus on issues our patients struggle with: “A time when I hid behind my stoic wall when it would have been better for me to come out is ________ ;” We also did “A time when I let my feelings misguide me rather than applying stoicism so I could accomplish my goal was _______.” And, of course the question we ask all our patients is most important to ask ourselves: “If I died today, what would be left unsaid or undone.”

Sometimes we work too hard; play gets stuffed in our shadow. That’s when we start a session with: “A story that always makes me laugh.” By the time we’ve all had our moment with the rock, we’re usually laughing so hard we have to choose between holding our bellies or wiping away the tears.

There has been little overstepping of boundaries. Self-controlled disclosure creates an atmosphere for safe and comfortable sharing. I’m thankful that Native Americans understood the wisdom of this powerful and meaningful forum for connecting and growing together, drawing out deeper insights from within.

The touchstone has collected hundreds of stories over the years. Wisdom is found in stories because stories have value beyond facts or biographical information. “The story is not told to lift you up, to make you feel better, or to entertain you. The story is meant to take the spirit into a descent to find something that is lost or missing and to bring it back to consciousness again,” writes Clarissa Pinkola Estes. She’s right. Stories are healing; they restore wholeness to our fractured selves. They help us find ourselves. There’s always room for each of us in a story, even though it’s someone elses story. It reminds me of something I read: “We comfort others not from the foundation of our superior faith, but from the commonality of our mutual struggles.” A good story almost always has a “mutual struggle” that connects each of us in the “common-unity” of the community.

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We offer these services with our Opus Peace prayer: Cultivate in me, oh God, the willingness to re-own and re-home scattered pieces of myself so that I might be restored to Your wholeness. Grow in me the honesty, humility, and courage to release my fears of who I am and who I am not. Fuel me with your Grace. Amen