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Mindful : April 2019
being popular, just isn’t anymore,” I remember her saying. “I care about making a difference [she became a schoolteacher], and I think I’m more empathetic. I feel that when someone is suffering I understand in my bones what she’s experiencing. Before, it was just, oh, poor her.” However, post-traumatic growth does not mean traumas are desirable, let alone that they should be downplayed when they befall others. As bestselling author Rabbi Harold Kushner said about the spiritual growth he experienced after the death of his 14-year-old son, “I would give up all of those gains in a second if I could have him back.” Few lives are without suffering, crisis, and traumas, from extreme or rare ones, such as becoming a war refugee or being taken hostage, to common ones, such as bereavement, accidents, house fires, combat, or your own or a loved one’s serious or chronic illness. For years, psycholog y has assumed that the best inoculation against post-traumatic stress—as well as responses to trauma that fall well short of mental disorder—is resilience, land mines and ambushes and friends blown apart. At the same time, the vet’s military experience (and his tri- umph over PTSD) makes him feel that he can accomplish anything. “Noth- ing bothers him too much, because everything pales in comparison to Vietnam,” said Tsai. This effect, post-traumatic g rowth, was so named in 1996 by psycholo- gists Lawrence Calhoun and Richard Tedeschi of the University of North Carolina. It can take many forms, but all involve positive psychological changes: a greater sense of personal strength (“if I survived that, I can survive anything ”), deeper spiritual awareness, greater appreciation of life, and recognition of previ- ously unseen pathways and pos- sibilities for one’s life. For many, post-traumatic growth brings closer relationships—as family and other loved ones are more cherished—and a stronger sense of connection to other sufferers. Stronger Than Before The concept that from great suffer- ing can come great wisdom is both ancient and familiar. An oncologist friend of mine talks about patients who say cancer was one of the best things that ever happened to them, cutting through life’s usual trivia and making them value the truly import- ant. President Jimmy Carter’s Chief of Staff, Hamilton Jordan (1944–2008), said his battle with cancer made him see that “the simple joys of life are every where and are boundless.” After a car crash in which my childhood friend Joyce lost her right leg at age 20, her months-long recovery and rehab left her with hours upon empty hours to think. “Stuff that used to be a big deal, like “POST- TRAUMATIC GROWTH MEANS YOU’VE BEEN BROKEN— BUT YOU PUT YOURSELF BACK TOGETHER.” JACK TSAI, PSYCHOLOGIST brain science 34 mindful April 2019