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.