Post Traumatic Growth through Re-Storying

In some ways, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning.

Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

Boston is immersed in a heat wave. We lazily walk around in the evenings, speaking “weather” to neighbors. The conversations go like this “Wow! It’s hot!” “It sure is!” “Keeping cool?” “Trying to.” Then we limply smile and amble off. Of course, to my Kurdish, Pakistani, and Egyptian friends, 95F (35 C) is not hot. 120F or 49C is hot. And yes, there is much truth to that. But, let us wallow in our heat wave. I, for one, love it. All I can think is how much better it is to be hot than to be cold.

It was fascinating to see the response to my post on TCKs and Post Traumatic Growth. There were emails, texts, and messages that showed much interest in hearing more. One of the biggest things that came out of conversations that I had with people is the importance of story or narrative in post traumatic growth.

As a reminder, Post Traumatic Growth, or PTG is about “positive psychological changes experienced as the result of the struggle with major life crises or traumatic events.” So what does trauma do? It shakes our world, it confuses our lives, and it challenges our worldview. When we face trauma, the story we have been living is massively impacted. Our stories change. Our trajectory changes. Life takes on a narrative of before and after – before the earthquake, after the earthquake. Before the Twin Towers fell; after the Twin Towers fell. Before a death; after a death. These are, to use the earthquake analogy, tectonic plate-shifting events. When the losses have been so great, how do we not live within them? How do we move into new growth?

We learn to “re-story.” As humans we are wired for narratives. Most of us are more likely to remember the story than the chart, the illustration than the data. Whether we are the story teller or the audience, we make meaning out of stories. And when trauma has altered our stories, we fare best when we can find meaning within it. This doesn’t mean that we wish the tragedy and trauma hadn’t happened. I would give anything to have not experienced some of the stories I’ve lived through. But I don’t have that choice. The trauma happened. Now it’s about what I do with it.

Into these narratives of loss and trauma comes the idea of re-storying them by incorporating the loss into the new story. This is not about sugar coating the past; rather it is about self-reflection and coming to terms with how we have grown and things we have learned through pain. Research shows that when someone reflects on painful memories and experiences with the goal of making meaning out of them, they gain wisdom. This wisdom translates into making better decisions, more effective problem solving, and the ability to give better advice. This making of wisdom and gaining perspective is Post Traumatic Growth.

Joan Didion emphasizes this:

We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely… by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria — which is our actual experience.

Joan Didion

Practically speaking, how do we do this? There are many articles and books that speak to this, but a June article by Arthur Brooks in The Atlantic called “Making the Baggage of Your Past Easier to Carry” gives some easy practical tips. The first is to keep a data base of postitive memories, the second is to practice gratitude, and the third one is this:

In your journal, reserve a section for painful experiences, writing them down right afterward. Leave two lines below each entry. After one month, return to the journal and write in the first blank line what you learned from that bad experience in the intervening period. After six months, fill in the second line with the positives that ultimately came from it. You will be amazed at how this exercise changes your perspective on your past.

I don’t know what your re-storying looks like. What I do know is that it isn’t about finding answers, because in truth, there are few if any. It is about finding meaning within the trauma, and that makes all the difference.

[Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash]

Words to End the Year

It’s noon on December 31st and grey fog fills up the space outside, making its way indoors only to be greeted by light and warmth. New Year’s greetings from around the world have begun, the first one being from my niece in Thailand, where papaya trees dot her yard and memories of our gathering immediately after my brother’s death flood my mind.

Many of us are ready to put this year behind – but for what and toward what? Will next year really be better? We don’t know. We forge forth, willing it to be so, shocking ourselves with our strength and perseverance. Believing somehow, without evidence, that “If something so impossibly catastrophic and unimaginably awful can happen, perhaps something impossibly beautiful and impossibly redemptive can also happen.” (paraphrased from @nightbirdie as quoted in Ann Voskamp blog) And yet, that is the very definition of faith.

Rather than try to pull words from an empty place today, I want to give you some words that others have written that have resonated with me. These are words of hope and wisdom, words to start a year.

On The Word: “This year would have been crushing without God’s Word, shining like a pillar of fire, hovering like a daytime cloud, in what has often felt like a wilderness of worrry and woe. There is so much gooness to savor in this life, and learning to be ruthlessly regular in savoring it is a discipline that I know I’ll have to keep practicing, forever.” Laura Merzig Fabrycky

On Hope: “Our God doesn’t swoop in and save us at the end. He’s here for the whole journey. The whole dark and broken experience of life among messy and messed up people. He’s the friend who sticks with us when we’re not nice to be around. He’s the one who will sit with us in silence, not just offer cliched words of “comfort.” He understands that hope isn’t about twirling in the sunshine; it is about believing in light while living in utter darkness.” Tanya Crossman in When Hoping Hurts

On Loving Others: “The problem is that people we cannot stand are loved just as much as we are by a God iwth an upsetting sense of community.” Barbara Brown Taylor

On Forgiveness: “Human beings need forgiveness and kindness like we need oxygen. A nation devoid of grace immiserates its people. A church devoid of grace rebukes the cross” David French from The Dispatch

On Dwelling: “But I know the place that comes next won’t be a place of stable ground, of settling. I don’t think that’s in the cards for me – of for many of us with wandering hearts and souls that chase after wherever God calls us next. It’s not a place or people or a single purpose that brings our hearts to rest. It’s not stablitiy or control. “Thou hast made us for thyself, O lord and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee,” said St. Augustine of Hippo…..and yet, my heart feels at rest among the mysteries of what is next and who I am becoming, of where my family’s story is headed and how God will lead. I coudn’t ask for a better place to dwell than here in the unknowing with the God who knows it all.” Nicole Walters in A Place to Dwell for Restless Hearts.

On Stories and The Word: “In the beginning was the Word, after all, as I suspect is shall be in the end: stories will remain our transit points, our shorelines, and our home.” Edwidge Danticat as quoted in Plough Magazine

And so as we end this year, making the small mark in history as the year that was 2021, I am reminded of words I wrote earlier in November, words that remind us that each of us walk a hard human path, and giving grace becomes not just important, but necessary.

“We all have something. We all have something that hurts, something that takes up our thoughts and interrupts our dreams.

“And so, in this New Year, I pray – I pray that God will help us with the somethings, from cancer to depression. I pray that God will ease our pain with his presence. I pray that the broken will be mended and the jobless will find jobs. I pray that the depressed will find comfort and the grieving will have permission to mourn. I pray that brains and bodies will be mended and hearts and minds will know the grace that is sufficient. I pray that we who walk this human walk will walk it despite the somethings. That we will chase beauty in the midst of the hard, that we will find light in the darkness. I pray that we will breathe in “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God,” and breathe out “Have mercy on me, a sinner.”

I pray “God, Help us with our somethings.”

And to you, who continue to read words in this space, thank you! May your hopes for the New Year transcend your helpless somethings, may you know peace, joy, and the incredible grace of God.

God, Help Us With Our Somethings

I last spoke with my friend Betsy in 2017 at my father’s funeral. It was too short of a conversation. She went out of her way to make sure she came to both the visiting hours at the funeral home before the funeral as well as the service itself the next day. She gave me the kind of hug that we most need when we are grieving – a complete hug that left no room for anything but comfort. We caught up as only two friends that know each other well can catch up. 15 minutes that included two years of happenings. The last thing she told me was that her cancer had recurred. Tears welled up in my eyes.

“I’m so sorry!” I said.

“It’s okay. You know, I’ve realized that I have this, but everybody has something.”

Everybody has something.

Betsy died a year and two months later. I wish I had known then that I would not see her again. Ten months later we had moved to Kurdistan and I last texted her just before her death. I think about her so much, her generosity of spirit, her incredible gift of hospitality, the way she made everyone feel like they were the only person that mattered when you were with her. Betsy was an extravagant friend.

I also think about the wisdom in what she said to me “Everybody has something.”

I thought about this today as I looked around our parish. We are an immigrant parish from many different countries and backgrounds. Russia, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Greece, Lebanon, Romania, the United States and more are all represented ethnically and linguistically. We are of every age, shape and size. We are literally the blind, the deaf, and the lame. And everyone of us has something.

The truth is, I don’t know all the somethings, just like people who attend don’t necessarily know my somethings. But I know enough to know that there are broken relationships and broken hearts, broken minds and broken bodies. I know that there are people who are hanging on by a thread of hope that reaches to the Heavens on a Sunday morning liturgy as they beg God and the Saints to intercede. I know that there are those who have had miscarriages and those with hurting children. I know that there are people who are without jobs, who literally pray that their daily bread and their rent money will come in. I know that there are students with dreams, and elderly with memories.

We all have something. We all have something that hurts, something that takes up our thoughts and interrupts our dreams.

And so I pray – I pray that God will help us with the somethings, from cancer to depression. I pray that God will ease our pain with his presence. I pray that the broken will be mended and the jobless will find jobs. I pray that the depressed will find comfort and the grieving will have permission to mourn. I pray that brains and bodies will be mended and hearts and minds will know the grace that is sufficient. I pray that we who walk this human walk will walk it despite the somethings. That we will chase beauty in the midst of the hard, that we will find light in the darkness. I pray that we will breathe in “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God,” and breathe out “Have mercy on me, a sinner.”

I pray “God, Help us with our somethings.”

Seen,Known, and Extravagantly Loved.

I recently redecorated my window seat. Designing, whether it be a presentation or a room, is perhaps one of my favorite creative activities apart from writing. Of course, they come from the same roots, do they not? The roots of growth, creativity, chasing beauty.

When I’m decorating I rearrange pictures, pillows, curtains, and furniture like I rearrange words when writing. I look at the effect and know it’s just not right – or, by contrast, it’s perfectly right.

During the time that we have lived in this house, my window seat has been the silent witness to joy and tear-filled mornings. It sits in the center of our living room and has been filled with bright Kurdish textiles. Suddenly I wanted a bit less color. A place where color could still pop but one that drew me in to calm serenity. I changed out the pillow seat to a textured white, added throw pillows of the same, and finished the look with the pop of color from the textiles. I love it. I can escape the world as it draws me in and fills me with joy.

Its in this window seat where I feel seen, known, and loved.

It has been in this window seat where I have read and re-read the words from Psalm 139 – possibly my favorite Psalm. Drawing us in with intimate detail, this Psalm gets to the heart of a God who knows and loves us, who as a brilliant artist, intricately wove us in the secret places. In reading through the Psalm, the messages are clear: We are seen clearly. We are known fully. We are loved extravagantly. The disconnect always comes as I contemplate the truth of those three things with the way I live my life. If I really believe that I am seen, known, and extravagantly loved, would I not rest easier? It’s something I’ve struggled with for a long time.

This window seat is a witness to many honest emotions, holding them with the steady and secure loyalty that inanimate objects sometimes offer. This Psalm is also witness to many emotions, to darkness as well as light – reminding me that God is present in the darkness, bringing light and offering the solace of his presence.

even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is bright as the day,
for darkness is as light with you

Psalm 139 Verse 12

In my break from social media I am brought into the timeless truth of Psalm 139 in a new way. There are the fickle responses on social media and then there are words read and memorized through centuries, words that withstand time and speak to the truth of God’s extravagant love for his creation.

Hearts, thumbs up, and ‘I care’ emojis are not a substitute for being seen, known, and loved extravagantly, but I too often get them confused.

I think of the words of Psalm 139. “all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” God knew the moment of our first breath, he knows the moment of our last. And all that lies between the two moments – the outrageous laughter, the occasional apathy, the weary wandering, the dark winters, the light summers, the moments that plod and those that sprint, the times of fierce envy, the occasions of deep generosity, the lonely nights, the anxious days when our bodies are consumed, the fear for our futures, the occasional moments of complete and blissful trust, the feasting and the famine – he knows all of it.

There is only one response, and this also is written in the Psalm: “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me. Too much for me to understand.”

So I’ll seek to sit in the window seat and rest in what I do know – that I am seen, known, and extravagantly loved.

Spilled Coffee and the Mercy of God

I love my post liturgical coffee. Some love their post liturgical naps (PLNs) but I love my coffee. It’s always the same. We stop at the coffee shop on the way home and I order a hazelnut latte, sipping it contentedly. It’s the same routine in the cold of winter where my breath fogs up the windshield, or in the heat of summer, where the steering wheel burns my hands and the car interior feels suffocating, where text messages from the City of Boston interrupt my thoughts to tell me just how hot it is going to be.

There is something deeply comforting about this coffee routine. It’s the treat of not making it myself combined with the peace of my post liturgical thoughts. Somehow it feels like one of God’s good gifts to me.

I arrived back home today, coffee in hand, and placed it on the kitchen counter. I’m not sure what happened but at one point I was multitasking and the next thing I knew, that beautiful hazelnut latte was all over my kitchen floor. It splattered everywhere, from the front of the cabinets clear over to the garbage can and everywhere in between. It even got on my sandals. Something inside of me broke and I began to sob. All of the pain in the world was in that cup of coffee. All the stress, sadness, and hurt that I have experienced in the last five months combined with creamy, frothy coffee to create a sticky mess. I was undone.

God’s good gift spread across the floor, no longer a comfort but a representation of all that hurts and brings pain.

A week ago I read a beautiful essay by a 30 year old woman who has had cancer three times. Her words were sharp and true and challenging. I am schooled well by younger people who know pain. In this essay she talked about being God’s downstairs neighbor, the one that bangs on his ceiling, trying to get attention, the one that shows up at his door everyday. The words resonated powerfully with me. I am the same. I may shout, I may scream. I may whisper. But I show up. It’s the only thing I know to do. She writes this, and in the reading I weep:

Tears have become the only prayer I know, Prayers roll over my nostrils and drip down my forearms. They fall to the ground as I reach for Him. These are the prayers I repeat night and day; sunrise, sunset.

Jane Marczewski

I remember this today as I soak up spilled coffee with paper towels, get rid of the whole sticky mess. And as unlikely as it is, I feel the mercy of God. The mercy of God in spilled coffee and spilled tears. The mercy of God in taking my exhausted spirit, and giving me an outlet to cry. The mercy of God in the post tears exhaustion where I have no fight left. Just the words “not my will, but thine be done.” Coffee will come and go, the mercy of God is never ending. Tears will be my prayers some days and laughter my prayers on others, but the God who made me and loves me takes all of it, wrapping me in the folds of an invisible embrace, whispering “You are loved” and I know the mercy in those whispered words.

So I’ll keep on choosing to believe in the mercy of God. I’ll continue to whisper a barely audible ‘thank you’ through tears that blind my eyes, and as I whisper, I may begin to mean it.

[Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash]

Pre-Paschal Reflections – Resurrection Hope

Chora Church, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Every year I sit down a couple of ours before our Pascha celebration and I write reflections. The house is generally quiet and I’m ready. Holy Week has ended and our Great and Holy Saturday service ushers us into the harrowing of Hell and the glory of resurrection.

We will enter the church in quiet anticipation. Candles will be lit and low lights will be on. Someone will be chanting the Psalms. Just 12 minutes before midnight, the church bells will begin to ring – one for every minute until finally – the room is completely dark and all are quiet. In the altar, the priests who have been readying for this for days, will begin singing “Thy Resurrection, O Christ Our Savior, the Angels in Heaven sing. Enable us on Earth to Glorify Thee in Purity of Heart.” Then all of us join in joyous song as one of the priests comes out and calls out in joyful command:

“Come! Receive the Light!”

As one, we move forward, our candles held out, desperate to receive the light, desperate for Resurrection Hope. (you have never seen Orthodox move so quickly except to the Paschal feast afterwards where cheese, meat, and cream beckon us from our six week vegan fast.)

This year I am deeply in need of hope. My husband has been sick for some time and the hospital has become my daily phone call or visit. I join the community of the desperate and broken hearted as I make my way into the visitor’s line daily. We make small talk through the nervousness of shared worry and fear for those we love. Occasionally we see a new mom and dad make their way out of the hospital, and we breathe with grateful hope. It’s not all bad, There is good. Didn’t someone once say that a baby is God’s way of saying the world must go on?* We hold out our phones with our Covid passes, indicating that we are safe to enter. We are masked and only our eyes tell the stories in our hearts and lives. We slowly pass through a revolving door and journey on to the floor where our loved one lies. None of us are in control. We tentatively put our trust in a medical system that fails us far too often and can only do so much for us, tentatively put our faith in doctors and nurses who are sometimes wonderful and sometimes not.

A hospital is a place for the sick and the broken – sometimes it brings hope and other times despair. I didn’t always believe this, but I have found that a church is also for the sick and the broken. The difference is it brings a hope that a hospital, no matter how world renowned, can never give, can never promise. A church brings in the sick and says “You are welcome! You belong here! Come – let us walk beside you in your journey to repentance, restoration, and resurrection hope!”

So tonight I go as one who is sick and one who longs for restoration. I will hold out my candle and receive the light. I will hold out for resurrection hope.

And Lent Begins

Lent begins.

It begins with minus degree weather and sore legs from prostrations.

It begins with personal pain and so much unknown.

It begins with a stomach that is already gurgling, wondering about its food source.

But still it begins – and that is something.

It begins with forgiveness Sunday, and a heart of compassion toward my church body, even those I may not be fond of.

It begins with a fraction of hope and whispers of Pascha.

It begins with blue sky, and that is a wonder.

It begins with awe and wonder that the God who created the universe reaches out his compassionate hand beyond space and time to comfort and whisper in the dark “you are beloved.”

It begins with the love of God the Father, the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the communion and beautiful fellowship of the Holy Spirit.

Oh Lord, let it begin.