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 development, but it was time to grow up.
Studies of post-traumatic growth highlight strategies that help people enlarge beyond victimhood to find new meaning and purpose. These include positive reframing, writing and discussion, social and therapeutic support, education, healing narratives, empowerment, and spiritual exploration. During my struggle to recover from adult hardship and childhood trauma, mentors encouraged me to try some of these tactics, and I stumbled upon others on my own.
My relationships with others improved as the lessons learned from breakdown helped reawaken my loving nature. My sister and I had not been close for many years, largely because I disapproved of her drinking. In 2010, just ten months before Janice died of liver disease, I looked at her choices anew. My feelings of anger and terror around alcoholism yielded to empathic understanding: drinking was the only comfort my sister trusted. I saw that although she was dying tragically, she had lived heroically. No matter what she endured, Janice always sounded upbeat and interested in others. It was just possible that alcohol enabled her sturdy optimism.
One of Don Miguel Ruiz’s Agreements is: “don’t take anything personally.” We can learn to support others instead of condemning behavior that makes us uncomfortable. For many years Janice’s drinking had felt like a personal affront, when in fact it had nothing to do with me. My sister’s final gift was this lesson in nonjudgmental, nonreactive affection. Like so many painful experiences, losing her cut deeply but also opened me to a more expansive understanding.
At their best, religions discourage myopic outlooks. If there’s a loving God, then there’s a bigger picture even if we can’t see it. And if our circumstances connect with countless prior lives, then excessive concern about temporal difficulties seems misplaced.
But meaning can be found simply by opening our eyes and hearts, which reveals how tragedy affects us all. We can make peace with suffering by helping others, by embracing their concerns as our own. Life isn’t personal; it’s collective. Accepting this truth is both a mandate and a blessing of maturity.
© 2013, Will Meecham, MD
Note: The foregoing essay was initially written as part of a fourteen article series for the Center for Post Trauma Wellness (CPTW) website, where most of the pieces are already online. The CPTW site is new and has yet to build up much traffic. In the interest of both finding a larger audience for this project and also giving CPTW some exposure, I am gradually posting portions of the series here.