A reliable means for transcending hardship is to endow it with meaning. Biblical faiths point to the will of a loving but mysterious God. Eastern traditions invoke karma, viewing misfortunes as correctives for misdeeds in past lives. Such explanations have comforted millions over centuries.
We can also make peace with adversity more prosaically. Anyone who watches human progress knows that challenges often spur growth. Resilience converts problems into opportunities; setbacks may thus appear beneficial in retrospect.
When I lost my surgical career due to neck disease, my psyche shattered. I nearly killed myself and for a time lost my grip on ordinary reality. For almost ten years I felt crushed, isolated, anxious, and depressed. Early on, it would have been impossible to imagine feeling strengthened by the loss.
Yet here I am, writing with some surety about recovery from trauma. Absent the turmoil of that difficult decade, there might never have been impetus for me to battle my way to clarity. Prior to reversal, professional success had compensated for the vulnerability bequeathed by childhood adversity. Career loss triggered disintegration, which forced me to rebuild myself as a more mature person.
To find meaning requires enlarging one’s perspective. Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl’s masterwork, Man’s Search for Meaning, describes how concentration camp horror offered an opportunity to serve. The decisive moment came when Frankl bypassed a chance at escape in order to remain with his patients in the makeshift medical ward. By expanding his circle of concern beyond the personal, he discovered meaning in an otherwise dreadful situation.
Gaining peace of mind after my collapse demanded that I acknowledge the pervasiveness of loss. Each year countless people lose jobs, health, homes, and loved ones. Seen in perspective, my meltdown appeared out of proportion to my circumstances. This prompted a deeper search. Soon I confronted coping mechanisms that hadn’t improved since adolescence, driven by self-centered attitudes and surrender to despair. It felt shocking to admit how much of my behavior was dictated by narcissism and emotional reactivity. I knew it was trauma that had retarded my …