Time heals all wounds, and other falsehoods

I’ve realized recently how much I’ve spent the past year thinking about time and how we spend it. I’ve been thinking about it in the existential, reflecting on the profoundly finite window we get here on earth and how those limits can give us life.  And I’ve been thinking about it at the uber pragmatic level, considering how our personal projects define us and how a lack of spaciousness in time hurts women.

So perhaps it was natural that I started thinking too about how time itself changes us and whether, when life gets really painful, time itself can be balm. Said another way, does time really heal all wounds?

It sure does seem like a nice idea.

It’s certainly been offered to me as a token of comfort in some of my hardest seasons, and I’m sure it has been to you as well. I have a particular memory of a woman showing me an apartment shortly after separating from my husband and putting a gentle hand on my back as I tried unsuccessfully to hold back my tears. “Time, love. You just need time. You know what they say…”

Of course I did. But I didn’t know why they said it. When I looked it up, as I’m inclined to do, I learned that the phrase might have its earliest roots in the words of the Greek dramatist named Menander who lived around 300 BCE.  He said, “Time is the healer of all necessary evils,” and with that a new greeting card phrase was born. (He also, separately, wrote, “A daughter is an embarrassing and ticklish possession.” So there’s that.)

It makes sense why this adage has become so deeply embedded in our culture, beyond the fact that it feels like something kind and reassuring to offer our friend amid her devastation. (Keep in mind there’s always potato soup we can bring over.)

We repeat it because we look back at our own lives and the lives of other people and it seems to be fairly true. The searing pain we felt when we were overlooked for that job or our brother lost his battle with cancer doesn’t grip our hearts in the way that it once did. Our best friend can get out of bed now and actually looks brighter, more open, since the darkest days following her divorce. Time was the balm, it seems.

And yes, time can be an important an ingredient in the recovery process – there’s no doubt about it. But it’s more like the time it takes for the ibuprofen to kick in when your temples feel like fire. It took time, yes. You had to be patient and let the medicine soothing that inflammation. But time alone wasn’t bringing the relief.

The healing we attribute to the passage of time is not the simple accumulation of minutes. It’s instead the movement we are making within those precious minutes, very often the almost imperceptible movements we are making.

When my friend Sarah lost her sister and took custody of her two teen nephews last year, she told me that it felt like trying to climb out of a deep, dank well just to get out of bed each morning. She stopped using the weighted blanket she’d slept with for years because she already felt such a heaviness on her chest at night. Each morning she’d open her eyes to see if the pain had diminished at all. It hadn’t.

A month or so after her sister had left her, Sarah decided to do two things each morning. She would pull her aching body out of bed to brush her teeth, and then she would crawl back in it and spend five minutes with her fist to her heart, talking to her sister. She would tell her about how angry she was that she wasn’t there anymore, and how absolutely overwhelmed she felt by all that was left.

Time was marching forward, and for the first time in a couple months, Sarah felt like maybe she could do. Perhaps it wouldn’t be a march, but a crawl. She didn’t feel better exactly, but she felt more connected to what was lost, and so she started to feel more capable.

Sarah could have stayed in the exact same fetal position hidden away under the blankets if she’d waited for the pain to subside. But in that time, some part of her nudged her just beyond her comfort zone, out of the bed and over to the sink. Back into bed to commune with her sister. Time wasn’t the balm; that part of her was.

And then there’s what happens when we do wait for time to release us – when we find ourselves with a broken heart or a broken spirit and we wait it out without doing the work. (Therapists like me love to refer to the work, but what the hell is it? Fair question. More on that in a second.)

First, what happens is this. We’re in a proverbial head-on collision. Life comes barreling through the intersection just as we are about to make our planned left turn. Our car spins. Control is lost. We survive, sure, but we find ourselves with stabbing back pain. Give it time, they tell us. Or maybe they tell us to go see our doc or start physical therapy. But we’re busy. We’ve still got to get back to making that left turn. So we’ll wait it out.

Our back keeps hurting, though not it’s not as agonizing at it was. It hurts more when we sleep our stomach, so we start sleeping on our side. The fact that our hips are now sore each morning is tolerable enough. It hurts more when we try to get up from the floor, so we tell our kids that we can’t play down there anymore. If we can stand a little differently, it feels like there’s less pressure, so we start to slump a bit to offer a little relief. Several months or even years have passed and if someone were to ask us if we have back pain, we might so, “Oh, it’s not too bad. It’s all manageable.”

And it is, sort of. But to manage it means to accommodate for it. It means to adjust our behaviors, what we are able and willing to do, how we hold ourselves through the world, just to avoid activating the worst of it. It works in a way. But in a way that holds a thousand invisible costs.

When we wait for time to ease the pain, we might find that it does get easier, but we also fail to notice all of the ways that we have incorporated the pain. This isn’t healing. This is accommodation.

It’s what most of us do when we do face the collisions of life – the breakups, the shadow losses, the grave disappointments, the traumas. We let time do its thing because there’s plenty else to distract us know and we don’t have time to go back to the fullness of the ache.

But at some point we have to look around and start to recognize how we’ve accommodated for the pain. I see it the way we steel our hearts to the richness of new and vulnerable love. I see it in how we operate from fear and anxiety in our parenting or career choices. I see it in how we keep ourselves small and tucked away from visibility, or in how we trust others too quickly because we’ve decided our own wisdom isn’t worthy enough. It happens in so many ways big and small.

The time will pass, sure. But the work that we can do within that time to resolve the ache, to learn through the experience is where the growth actually happens. It’s what happens when we start PT after that car accident, and it connects us to the sensations of our bodies in new ways, or we discover through it that movement can actually feel joyful or restorative. And so we start moving and walking and that takes us into the woods more often and that gets us more energized to play with our kids and that helps us our mood lift and that makes us feel more agency to make bolder choices.

This is what psychologists call post-traumatic growth, the sunnier cousin to post-traumatic stress. But what’s important to note here is that they aren’t mutually exclusive. It’s not as if you the luck of the draw determines if you get one or the other. In fact, most of the people I know found post-traumatic growth after actively working to resolve their PTSD. And, importantly, that didn’t involve waiting it out.

It involved this infamous work. And while of course and annoyingly, that work looks different for every person and every adverse experience, there are a few commonalities.

The work involved at least one other person, whether they were a partner, a friend, a therapist, or another kind of healing practitioner. They didn’t try to go at it alone and connection, rather than isolation, was part of their process.

The work involved building a narrative of what happened – not to slather on blame toward themselves or others, but to develop a coherent understanding of how the hell it all happened.

The work involved taking radical accountability for their contributions, when applicable. Even when it was painful and sucky and it was the last thing they wanted to look at.

The work involved putting their experience into the bigger context of their life, which admittedly can take some time. This is where time often is a necessary component. We need time to get perspective on how this fits into our personal puzzle.

The work involved rebuilding safety. That safety could be boundaries for themselves, new physical guardrails or practices, new emotional skills, or new awareness of their own strengths.

The work involved – I’m sorry to have to say this – acknowledging that this pain could happen again, even if they work to prevent it. And acknowledging that if it – or something else painful happens – they will survive that too.

Time is not the independent balm that we often want it to be, but that’s far from a hopeless thought. Sure, we can’t hide under the covers and expect to emerge with rainbows raining down on us, but we can remember that our actions matter. That what we do in those moments – however seemingly miniscule – matter. Times doesn’t heal wounds, but maybe we do.

Dr. Ashley Solomon is the founder of Galia Collaborative, an organization dedicated to helping women heal, thrive, and lead. She works with individuals, teams, and companies to empower women with modern mental healthcare and the tools they need to amplify their impact in a messy world.

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