Imagine a supplement that could increase human compassion and sensitivity. Would you add it to your diet?
If it meant enduring discomfort, as experiences that spur empathy often do, many of us would decline. Our culture places a premium on pleasure and assumes pain is mere punishment, without redeeming features. Yet isn’t it the case that those with the greatest capacity to understand the suffering of others are those who have suffered themselves? Isn’t it the case that the heart opens not through fate’s balms, but through its lacerations?
As someone who sees value in Buddhism, I’ve come to understand that afflictions are unavoidable. But as someone who also sees value in Christianity, I’ve learned that human ordeals can be redemptive. They can rescue us from narrow concerns and encourage tender appreciation of our shared predicament as living beings. Acknowledging this benefit of hardship does not require any particular spiritual or moral belief system; it simply requires us to look at our companions and identify those most capable of compassion, those most generous and wise. Usually, these are people who have grown through significant trials.
In medicine, many vitamins are known to be vital in small doses but toxic in large ones. Trauma, what I’m calling Vitamin T, is similar. Humans can be overwhelmed by it; they can be devastated, even destroyed. Probably, we’d all do best with just enough turmoil during childhood to prevent smugness, to alert us to the needs of others.
Would we could all receive ideal doses of Vitamin T early on, but fate doesn’t work that way. Some get too little, becoming grownups who first disregard the pain of others and later feel bewildered when they encounter their own tribulations in life. Others get too much and enter adulthood feeling insecure, angry, and alone.
Children facing abuse, loss, and neglect must struggle to find safety. Defenses such as dissociation, distrust, dissembling, defiance, and defeatism are tried until some combination serves–more or less–to aid survival. Then, after dangerous upbringings, new challenges arise as early coping strategies now impede adult development of relationships, careers, and identities. Vitamin T has been administered in near-lethal dosage. The organism ends up crippled with various combinations of self-loathing, grandiosity, fearfulness, hostility, numbness, hypersensitivity, withdrawal, and/or dependency.
Luckily, the system can detoxify. It takes time, but the effects of a Vitamin T overdose can transform from liabilities to assets. The adult who transcends the legacy of formative adversity grows into a person who understands human unhappiness, who neither pities nor condemns those still mired in misery. The one who has overcome trauma is the one who sees recovery as a difficult but rewarding process, as harrowing and beautiful as Life itself.
Although they begin battered, once recovered the traumatized possess legitimacy when explaining to the rest of the world that life isn’t only about seeking comfort; it’s also about learning to accept, with grace, the opposite. Pursuit of material success and domestic security doesn’t abolish suffering; it merely obscures it. Those who have healed after punishing childhoods know that contentment flows in more profound currents, beneath the bobbing toys of modern life.
Here’s another definition: Stress Inoculation: in clinical psychology, an approach intended to provide patients with cognitive and attitudinal skills that they can use to cope with stress.
Childhood adversity, once overcome, yields robust stress inoculation. It convinces us that life is ever challenging, but also that we can adapt our styles of thinking and relating to maximize effectiveness. What’s more, we understand that being effective doesn’t mean accumulating conventional rewards. It means opening the heart and mind until we see ourselves as small parts of a large, roiling whole. It means appreciating how past weaknesses have evolved into strengths, and how we can offer the world a needed perspective about growing through suffering. Very often, it also means helping others cope with past trauma.
As an aside: Equally vital, but usually requiring political rather than personal action (except in cases of direct witness and/or professional involvement), is working to curtail exploitation and abuse of children and adults. Yet in protecting others from mistreatment, those who have endured harsh realities know that aggressive punishment serves only to perpetuate cycles of aggression; they recognize that victimizers are usually former victims who have failed–so far–to mature beyond their misery. Those who have transcended early wounds insist on safeguarding the vulnerable but also on offering opportunities for healing to offenders. Unfortunately, some abusive persons present such narcissistic and predatory personalities, with such limited capacities for remorse, that they reject or manipulate sincere efforts to help them abandon harmful behaviors. It still makes sense to see each one as potentially capable of reform, but anybody who has suffered under intentional cruelty will appreciate the need for caution. This unflinching clarity about extending support while defending against character pathology can be seen as yet another boon of traumatic experience.
With so much compassion, acceptance, and insight to be gained, can we begin to consider trauma a vital supplement? Sooner or later it touches every one of us; perhaps the time has come to honor the ways it enlarges the soul. Perhaps the time has come to recognize Vitamin T as the essential nutrient that facilitates a heartfelt, meaningful life.