The Stinking Wound – Compassion for Our Wounds, and Theirs

The wounds of others are distasteful to us. We recoil from the lame, the weak, the crazy. But what happens when we lean in, touch, and gaze upon the wounds?

Healing happens. It happens for the wounded, and it happens for the witness of the wound as well.

We fear that we’ll absorb and take on the wound. We fear that; however, it cannot happen. Emotional wounds aren’t contagious like some kind of airborne virus. I just re-read a bit of a book that’s been around for a while, and is rather remarkable — a best-seller: Women Who Run with the Wolves, by Clarissa Pinkola Estés. In the section that examines the tale of Skeleton Woman, Estés summarizes the story of Philoctetes and his wound. Philoctetes was stuck, wounded, on the island of Lemnos (left to die). His wound festered and became so odorous that those who came near the island would steer their vessels away, due to the horrible smell from his stinking wound. That is, until a young man came and was a witness to his suffering and was so touched by it that he cried. He cried in the face of Philoctetes wound and dignity, both. He then bandaged his wound, (helping him rather than stealing from him as planned).

Estés writes:

The tear of compassion is wept in response to realizing the stinking wound. The stinking wound has different configurations and sources for each person. For some it means spending a lifetime pulling oneself up the mountain hand over hand — belatedly to find we’ve been working our way up the wrong mountain. For some it is unresolved and unmedicated issues of abuse in childhood.

This reminds me, for it is compassion-forward, of the tonglen practice of breathing hope into the suffering of another person. I wrote about my understanding of tonglen here in this previous post.

If you read the Skeleton Woman story, you really can’t help but be moved. Each time I return to it, the story tells me something new. Once the lesson was to allow myself to be vulnerable in view of another. More recently it was about holding the sight of the wound of another and while regarding it in full view, to see that the wound and the person were two entities, separate.

It’s simple — or, rather, simplistic — to view a person and think they are their wound. Are we our wounds? Or are we people who carry wounds? (We carry them but for how long?) And then, of course, we see our own reflection in that simplistic view of the other, and even think we’re part of the wounded person, too. We’re as much as part of their wound as they are — imagining it makes it so; wearing the cloak of the wound makes it so.

What stinking wound are you not looking directly at? Can you have compassion for that wound?

In a moment of compassion, we can view horrible, stinking, and debilitating wounds. We can see the two as separate — the wound and the wounded. Within our compassionate regard, we experience a bit of spontaneous healing as well as gain new, deeper access to our humanity.

That’s grace.

-Be kind to yourself.


  1. NS says:

    This is so great! Something that everyone should consider more often. Though, I may be biased since I absolutely Love this book! We read this very section (along with others) and had an in depth discussion on it in a psych class. My favorite has always been the Mistaken Zygote and the Ugly Duckling chapter. :-)

    • Amy Eden says:

      Thanks, that is really great. How awesome that you got to study that book!
      I love how it got me to look from a new angle at how I react to the “wounded…” which I’m sure was largely shaped by the culture.

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