Time Does Not Heal All Wounds

Thursday, May 4, 2017 - 5:00 am

Time Does Not Heal All Wounds

My musical tastes often turn back to a generation before I was born: the soulful tunes of 1960s and 1970s, the rock of the ’60s, and even the hip-hop of the ’80s and ’90s when I was still too young to fully grasp just how revolutionary and fierce this music was. One of the consequences of having an older musical taste is that you watch your icons grow old, sometimes uncomfortably so, and pass away one by one: David Bowie, Whitney Houston, George Harrison, Johnny Cash, Prince, Leonard Cohen, Phife Dawg, and so many more.

Patti Smith, another of the giants who is approaching the winter season of her life, was recently asked to perform at the Nobel Prize ceremony honoring laureate Bob Dylan. It was a reminder of her singular genius, strength, and talent. Her performance of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” was mesmerizing.

In the months around that time, Patti Smith had done a lot more interviews, reflecting on life, music, friendships, and yes, aging and death. Patti talked about the death of her husband and friends, and how she still carries on conversations with them. A realization that death is a part of the life cycle, and all of us have to walk through that door.

Some of her statements affirm what we have known, though have been so reluctant to face. Here she talks about how we all have to confront the death of our loved ones and family, and yes, our own mortality. And that the departed live on inside us, as we shall live on inside others.

The part that caught my ear was when she reflected on how time has changed the way that she deals with the wounds of losing loved ones. Patti recalled a piece of advice from her father:

“When my husband, Fred, died, my father told me that time does not heal all wounds but gives us the tools to endure them. I have found this to be true in the greatest and smallest of matters.”


Time does not heal all wounds.

I cannot tell you how often I have heard this from people. It comes after a death, a betrayal, a break-up, a loss. As I have said before, we don’t have rituals on how to process loss and grief. We know how to celebrate success and ceremonies through rituals like like graduation and weddings. We have no rituals, no tradition for how to do divorce, the death of a child, or “failure.” Sometimes not knowing what to say, people come up to us and say, “It’ll get better with time.” “It’ll get easier with time.”

Patti Smith reminds me of what Martin Luther King had said in a very different context: Time is morally neutral. Things do not get better by themselves. They also do not get worse by themselves. That’s true whether we are talking about a society bending the arc of the moral universe towards the good and the just, or sliding towards an abyss of authoritarianism.

It’s also true when we speak about the healing of hearts. Hearts do not get better or worse by themselves. Wounds do not heal simply with the passing of time. At least not for all wounds. Sometimes wounds fester.

If people get better, and thank God we do sometimes, it’s that we work on healing. We are loved into healing. We tap into a strength that we didn’t know we had. We call on family and friends, to us of a worth and dignity that we have lost along the way. But it is not merely “time.” As Patti says, time gives us “the tools to endure them.”

My life is all about Hamilton: An American Musical these days. In one of the most memorable lines of that amazing musical, the two lead characters, Alexander Hamilton (originally played by the show’s creator, the uber-talented Lin-Manuel Miranda) and Eliza Hamilton (originally played by the brilliant and lovely Phillipa Soo) attempt to get their lives back on track after Alexander’s public admission of his affair and the tragic death of their son, Phillip.

“There are moments that the words don’t reach
There is suffering too terrible to name
You hold your child as tight as you can
And push away the unimaginable
The moments when you’re in so deep
It feels easier to just swim down

The Hamiltons move uptown
And learn to live with the unimaginable”

They learn to live with the unimaginable.

Alexander and Eliza move uptown, and Alexander learns pray again, spending hours in the garden, walking in the street. There is no moment at which the unimaginable becomes ordinary. The unimaginable never becomes “normal.” There is a hole in our heart that is always there. And yet, sometimes that wound, that crack, becomes where the light gets in.

But the magical turn in the song comes in the same way that Patti Smith talks about: Time gives us the tools to endure. In the words of Hamilton, we “learn to live with the unimaginable.”

I know of no other tribute to the endurance of the human spirit, to the healing potential of the human spirit to watch us learn to live with the unimaginable.

And to see broken hearts heal enough to love again, soar again. Blessed be the tools to endure what once seemed crushing. Here is to all of us, wounded healers, learning to live with the unimaginable.

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is a columnist for On Being. His column appears every Thursday.

He is Director of Duke University’s Islamic Studies Center. He is the past Chair for the Study of Islam, and the current Chair for Islamic Mysticism Group at the American Academy of Religion. In 2009, he was recognized by the University of North Carolina for mentoring minority students in 2009, and won the Sitterson Teaching Award for Professor of the Year in April of 2010.

Omid is the editor of the volume Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism, which offered an understanding of Islam rooted in social justice, gender equality, and religious and ethnic pluralism. His works Politics of Knowledge in Premodern Islam, dealing with medieval Islamic history and politics, and Voices of Islam: Voices of Change were published 2006. His last book, Memories of Muhammad, deals with the biography and legacy of the Prophet Muhammad. He has forthcoming volumes on the famed mystic Rumi, contemporary Islamic debates in Iran, and American Islam.

Omid has been among the most frequently sought speakers on Islam in popular media, appearing in The New York TimesNewsweekWashington Post, PBS, NPR, NBC, CNN and other international media. He leads educational tours every year to Turkey, Morocco, or other countries, to study the rich multiple religious traditions there. The trips are open to everyone, from every country. More information at Illuminated Tours.

Share Your Reflection


  • Gabby

    Indeed, time itself does not heal deep wounds. Neither does being loved. But the latter, like sleeping, eating, learning new things, and all the daily routines that keep a person involved in life, can help a person continue to live as best he can with his broken heart.

  • Kavita Mahendra

    Simply amazing! Love On being!

  • Susan Gioia

    What a treasure you have written. A few months ago I attended a funeral of a beautiful young woman, (wife, mother, sister, aunt) who died suddenly and tragically. At the funeral, the mother of the deceased got up before a packed Church and spoke without one trace of hatred or anger, and thanked everyone there for their love. She said, “Time doesn’t heal wounds- only love can heal a wound this deep.” At that moment, I saw divine love (I imagine a lot of others did too) in person ad with my own eyes. Thank you so much for this piece. I’ve shared it on FB hoping that those who miss my friend, and those who get to see her mother living and loving while grieving will read this.

    • Omid Safi

      dear Susan, this touched my own heart so: “Time doesn’t heal wounds- only love can heal a wound this deep.”
      thank you!

  • Thank you, thank you, thank you for this beautiful expression of an existential truth of this mortal life. I was widowed young, and I’m a therapist. I see so many suffering people who are courageously “learning to live with the unimaginable” who are hurt and ostracized by cultural messages that tell them they’re supposed to bounce back to some normal that has been annihilated. I’m working as fast as I can on a book about grief that holds the truths you are speaking here at its center, but I can’t get it out fast enough! What you have written here keeps me going as I write. Thank you again.

    • Omid Safi

      Thank you Candyce. How lovely that you have turned your own unimaginable grief into a path of providing a healing space for others. May God bless you over and over again.

  • Omid Safi

    thank you Nasreen!

  • Sarah Conover

    Hello Omid–thank you for the thoughts on loss and grief. I’m writing because although I loved MLK’s statement that time is morally neutral, I have an argument with your statement that “things do not get worse.” I have studied “complicated grief” at the very personal level, at the level of my extended family and well beyond. My family experienced a horrendous tragedy when I was 18 months old–mother, father, grandmother, grandfather–all died at once in a storm in the Bermuda Triangle in 1958. What I’ve witnessed is that a tragedy of that magnitude will repeat itself for generations if it’s not brought to light, or as Jung would say, “What we don’t bring to the light of awareness comes to us as fate.” There’s a weird mystery to this phenomenon, how the damage re-arises complicated and even compounded in the lives of the people affected. At the age of 61, having faced the pain bequeathed to me, I am certain that if the grief isn’t addressed, the anguish will indeed get worse, decisions will be made unconsciously from that damaged paradigm almost moment by moment across the arc of a life, an ability to trust the world affecting everything. The long horizon of a tragedy can be reversed and healed, but if it’s left alone and untended under the assumption of time’s neutrality, lives cannot be redeemed.

    • Judy Montel

      Oh Sarah, how painful. I salute your courage in facing this terrible tragedy and finding ways to live sustainably with what cannot be altered.

  • marilyn meier

    I never comment on line but your essay and the music fills my soul. I too thank you.

    • Omid Safi

      I am truly touched and honored marilyn. Thank you!

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  • flowerplough

    The wounded are often either helped with or hindered from healing by the further actions of those who did them harm. Native Americans, Australian Aborigines, and Turkish Armenians all seem to have continued to suffer and despair, while contrite Germany’s admissions and restitutions may have aided European Jews’ recovery from the attempted genocide.