Ever since I watched my grandfather succeed as a businessman and father of five despite his crippling injury from polio, I’ve wondered: How is it possible that some people emerge from pain fortified? Throughout my decades as a reporter, when I visited tsunami victims and torture survivors, these questions tugged at me: Why do some people fall apart after catastrophes while others not only survive, but thrive? What makes the difference?
When I found myself bedridden in my twenties, with a virus that sucked the life out of me, this quandary became deeply personal. How could I become whole again?
When suffering strikes, running the opposite direction as fast as we can seems to make so much sense, doesn’t it?
After all, nobody wants suffering in their life. So we avoid it at all costs. We dodge and duck and bargain. But does pushing pain away cut it?
As Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron says, “No one ever tells us to stop running away from fear. We are very rarely told to move closer, to just be there, to become familiar with fear.”
When I once asked Pema how she dealt with her own debilitating chronic fatigue, she said she tried to apply the advice her teacher had given her:
“Lean into it. Stay present. Stay curious. Go through it paying meticulous attention as if you wanted to describe it in great detail to someone who’s never heard of it.”
What would happen if we stayed to pay attention?
Most people have heard of posttraumatic stress. Yet, beyond the medical community, few are aware of the evidence of posttraumatic growth. It may seem paradoxical to even put the words “trauma” and “growth” next to each other in one sentence. And yet, survivors and experts begin to focus increasingly on the possibility that we could use even the most harrowing experiences for a greater good in our own life and to impact the world.
According to psychologist Richard Tedeschi, posttraumatic growth’s leading researcher, as many as ninety percent of survivors report at least one aspect of posttraumatic growth, such as a renewed appreciation for life or a deeper connection to their heart’s purpose. This does not happen immediately or easily. We need to actively work towards positive change, and we need the right tools and support in order to transform a bad break into a breakthrough.
The everyday definition of resilience entails a sense of bouncing back from a severe crisis, but for me, the idea that we can “bounce back” from a devastating blow and “return to our original shape” falls short. We never forget the ones we’ve lost or the arduous struggles we’ve fought. The lives we lead are markedly different before and after a trauma, because these losses and struggles transform and profoundly change us. This is posttraumatic growth, or as Dr. Maya Angelou defines rising above hardship, “bouncing forward, going beyond what the naysayers said.”
At first, I had suspected that just a few superhuman outliers, the likes of Maya Angelou, managed to turn trials into triumphs. But by talking to survivors from all walks of life, from soldiers to surfers, I have come to realize that resilience is a muscle that strengthens with exercise.
Many think of resilience as a kind of Teflon quality, an impenetrable armor that magically wards off pain and suffering. Retailers market Resilience Lotion, and “Resilience Extreme Makeup”. Most likely, this magic potion exists only in Hollywood and makeup ads.
The mavens of posttraumatic growth tell a different story: that resilience is a matter of small steps, of inching forward one breath at a time. Only after they embraced their suffering and after they let it penetrate them to the core, did things change. Posttraumatic growth is quite the opposite of Rambo’s grin-and-bear-it bravado. In fact, the lone cowboy who thinks asking for help is a weakness is the one most at risk. Covering up a scar with a smiley face band aid does not lessen the pain either. Growth arises, quite to the contrary, from acknowledging our wounds and allowing ourselves to be vulnerable.
Our upbringing plays a role, and so do genetic factors, resources, social skills, and our purpose in life. Some of these factors are beyond our control. We cannot control the tides of life, terrorist attacks, drunk drivers, or the upstairs neighbor cranking up the volume of Metallica, but we have control over the most important ingredient: our mind.
Think of it as a grand experiment: What if we opened up instead of closing down, if we let the pain in rather than warding it off?
Father Thomas Merton says,
“Indeed, the truth that many people never understand, until it is too late, is that the more you try to avoid suffering, the more you suffer.”
Acceptance, openness, flexibility, optimism, patience, mindfulness, empathy, compassion, resourcefulness, determination, courage, and forgiveness are all part of a resilient mindset. These are qualities we can train in, and in Bouncing Forward I offer precise strategies how to find healing and forgiveness, such as training in mindfulness meditation, keeping a daily gratitude journal, and reaching out for allies.
Maybe there is a “resilience makeup” after all. We just can’t buy it in a store.
Michaela Haas, PhD, is a resilience researcher, reporter, and author of Bouncing Forward: Transforming Bad Breaks into Breakthroughs. Read more about posttraumatic growth on www.michaelahaas.com.