Out of weakness they were made powerful. Hebrews 11:34
I have heard it more times than you can imagine: “My cancer, loss of a job or the ending of a significant relationship was the best thing that ever happened to me.”
One person put it this way. “Before my cancer, I was interested mostly in my own personal selfish happiness. Now I recognize how my wife cared for me when I was sick and see how much stronger we are acting as a team together.”
Even though the Bible and the Quran tell us of people who have faced horrible experiences and have come out better on the other side, the psychology community has typically ignored positive mental growth stemming from trying circumstances. They have typically focused on people who do not do well. They have typically put their energy into looking for disorders and problems and anomalies.
Recently, however, some psychologists have started to conduct studies to see what they can learn about positive responses to negative situations.
One of the first studies gathered a group of people who had overcome difficult setbacks such as paralysis, blindness or the loss of a lifelong partner. Their research found that not only had these people often experienced impressive personal transformations, but their transformations fell into five categories: better relationships with others, improved personal strength, heightened spiritual satisfaction, renewed appreciation for life, and a desire to find new possibilities, interests and professional pursuits.
The question is not whether the phenomenon of post-traumatic growth exists, but why some people respond to trauma with what psychologists call PTG (Post Traumatic Growth), while others experience nothing at all or descend into PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). Researchers posit several factors.
Those who lack qualities like optimism, openness to new experiences and an ability to cope altogether can be totally overwhelmed by trauma, while those with an abundance of those qualities are often able to shrug off trauma without growing in the process.
Oddly, however, it is those with a moderate degree of optimism, openness to new experiences and an ability to cope who are most suited for Post Traumatic Growth. A second factor in such growth is the support of family, professional guidance and role models. This could include the support of a church community, spiritual direction and the witness of the saints.
I have written often in this column about the paradox of setbacks — how what appears to be a tragedy one year can actually be a blessing in the years that follow. There are those who hug their losses so tightly that they never get over them. There are those who handle them with denial and compound their suffering or project it onto others.
The best approach is to remain open to God and trusting in his ways, knowing that if he can bless us once, he can bless us more than once.
As Kelly Clarkson sings, it’s often “what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.”
Father J. Ronald Knott