“In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning.”
—Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
I’ve always been interested in self-repair – the ways in which we put ourselves back together after things fall apart. Over the last year, more and more of us are feeling a little (or a lot) broken, worn out, even traumatized. According to a study done by Harvard Medical School researchers 61% of men and 51% of women in the US report at least one traumatic event in their lifetime.
The good news is that many of us find ways to move through emotional exhaustion and trauma. We lean on friends, adopt practices that strengthen our personal resilience, and draw upon the wisdom of wise teachers through the books they have written. Slowly we navigate our way from down-and-out back to a state that feels more familiar, stable, and hopeful.
It’s one thing to “make it through” – to survive and bounce back from a traumatic event like a terrible illness, the death of a loved one, a physical assault or even the enduring trauma of living through war or persistent racial violence. But it’s another thing to actually grow from adversity. Psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun call this Post-Traumatic Growth. To describe post-traumatic growth, they use the metaphor of an earthquake: You are living your life relying on a particular set of beliefs about the benevolence and controllability of the world when boom! – something happens that shakes you from your default way of being.
It’s precisely when the foundational structures of self are shaken and shattered that we are faced with the opportunity for true growth. In the short term, the pain, anxiety, anger, and depression we feel from trauma are real and should not be ignored. However, in the longer term, hardship invites us to reconsider who we are and to make new meaning of our lives. That new meaning may live right alongside the pain but somehow the meaning also becomes a salve for the pain.
Tedeschi and Calhoun found seven kinds of growth that happen as a result of a struggle with highly challenging life circumstances:
Greater appreciation for life
Greater appreciation and strengthening of close relationships
Increased compassion and altruism
Identification of new possibilities or purpose in life
Greater awareness and utilization of personal strengths
Enhanced spiritual development
As you read this list can you identify some of the gifts you’ve taken from the most adverse experiences throughout your life time? Where are the opportunities to cultivate growth in the midst of current adversities you face?
Image credit: Alaric Duan on Unsplash