Posttraumatic Growth and the Spirituality of Suffering

Posttraumatic Growth and the Spirituality of Suffering

September 8, 2020 By Evangelization & Catechesis

By Dr. Robert J. Wicks 

As I flew into Beirut, I wasn’t sure of what to expect.  The goal was to speak about resilience, self-care, and maintaining a healthy perspective to Catholic caregivers living and working in Aleppo, Syria.  They had brought them to Lebanon so I could speak to them through an Arabic interpreter. 

When I looked into their faces on the first day, I could see these were truly heroes.  Among the many who had abandoned Syria, these were the caregivers who stayed.  I could also see that many of them were suffering from what is called “vicarious PTSD (posttraumatic stress)”.  That is, they were dealing with individuals who had been traumatized, were totally lost and had come to them for help.  In addition, ISIS was breathing down their necks with the threat of an impending attack at the same time they were trying to care for others.  In response, they were often swept up in the impossible demands and unrealistic expectations and actually tried to meet them.  The result?  They became overwhelmed themselves. 

In response, I tried to share with them that I had been in fairly tense situations myself.  I had been in Cambodia twice to work with helpers and healers working there after years of terror and torture.  I also was responsible for the debriefing of relief workers evacuated from Rwanda during their bloody genocide.  But after sharing some of my experiences I said to them that no matter what situations I had been in before I would never totally understand their unique situation.  However, I told them that I did have information to share and they deserved to gain from it whatever worked given their current plight.  My hope was that they would be open to what I could share.   

To do this though, they would need to position themselves for what is now referred to in psychology as posttraumatic growth (PTG).  Such growth represents the personal depth that is achieved after a traumatic experience or severe stress that would not have been possible had the trauma or stress not occurred in the first place.  To accomplish this they would need to, on the one hand, not avoid, playdown, romanticize or seek to go around the negative realities they were confronting.  While, on the other hand, they would also need to be open to what new possibilities, calls, and depth that would be possible as a very result of their lives being turned upside down. 

This is very much in line with the spirituality of suffering.  In it, we are not called to seek or want pain in our lives.  That is masochism—it may be considered “Christian masochism” but it is a distortion of the Gospel message nonetheless.  Instead, with a healthy spirituality of suffering in place there is a call to face the difficult realities of life that come our way and, in confronting them, seek what God is saying to us in ways we might not have heard or appreciated before. 

A pandemic is a good example of this.  While it has caused discomfort for some and terrible tragedy for others, the call within its presence is to see it as a portal to a new level of faith that “normal life,” with its comfort and routine, might not offer us.  In other words, the pandemic is calling us to gain a new perspective on life and faith. 

Gaining, maintaining and regaining a healthy perspective have long been encouraged by psychiatry and psychology.  When we have a healthy way of viewing ourselves in life we are more grateful for what we have and can deal with darkness more readily when it comes in life as it surely will for all of us.  The tenet is: How we view ourselves, others, and the world is a more important factor than what we are viewing.   

This is reflected spiritually, as well as psychologically, in our developing attitude toward life.  For instance, when Jack Nelson was walking the streets of Calcutta and saw the dire poverty, he began to scream at God.  However, he soon was grateful to have his eyes opened because then then realized that in the suffering of the poor God was screaming at him. 

World religions have long held a healthy perspective in high regard.  In the Talmud we read that we do not see things as they are.  We see things as we are.  Buddhists speak about it as the unobstructed vision.  Hindus in the Upanishads as a turning around in one’s seat of consciousness and we as Christians in the New Testament in the words, “When your eye is good, your whole body will be good (Matt 6:22).” 

And so, amidst the disruptions and terrible suffering caused by a pandemic, the question is: What can we do about maintaining a healthy perspective so we can appreciate amidst the darkness and because of the darkness, what new spiritual light we are being called to see?  Naturally, the call is as unique as each person.  And so, what I am being asked to see anew through unlearning and new learning will be different than what you might be asked to see.  However, setting the stage for such an openness on our part is uniform for many of us and includes a number of attitudes to welcome God into our lives in transformative ways. 

Transformative Attitudes 

One of these is, surprisingly, gratitude.  When we are missing so much—freedom to travel and see friends and family, ability to interact without a mask, security that our health is not endangered by our surroundings, to name just a few—the question comes up, why gratitude—especially now?  Yet, gratitude allows us to have the eyes to see and appreciate so much around us that we may have missed.  We may find during a pandemic that a phone call or video connection with others is more greatly valued.  In the past, we may have rushed around saying to ourselves, I’ll catch up with them later…but there may never be a later, only sorrow that we didn’t connect when we had the intention and instead let the opportunity to slip by. 

Gratitude also has us use the space we now may have to value the “little” things such as a leisurely cup of coffee or tea, a piece of music listened to, a book finally read, or quiet time to reflect and pray.  As Brother David Steindl-Rast once noted, we often leave the house with “a list” and on that mental list is what we will be grateful for.  A pandemic gives us the chance to throw away that list so we can be open to what has been before us as a gift for some time and we are now seeing and more fully enjoying for the first time.  

Another gift of a pandemic is a recognition of the importance of embracing impermanence.  When I would ask my elderly aunt if she was going to a wedding in the spring, she would say, “Oh, I don’t know if I will be alive then.”  Yet, if I asked her what she was going to do next week, she would have a full list as if it was definite that next week would come.  Wearing masks, hearing of massive deaths in our own back yard, reminds us that our life is quite brief and what we do to help others and ourselves on behalf of the “kin-dom” of God must be appreciated now.  At some point there will be no “later”. 

Faith can also be enhanced during the disruptions caused by such a crisis as Covid-19.  Since our religious practice is disrupted, we are called to recognize even more keenly the difference between religion and faith.  Religion is a crucial bridge to greater faith, compassion and community.  It is a shining light to show us how to live more in the Spirit of Christ.  However, as important as the bridge is, it is not the goal of a deeper faith in God.  And so, while we certainly feel deprived of ritual and community, we also have our eyes open to the need to not confine our relationship with God to a Sunday Mass.  Furthermore, its absence may help us see, possibly at some deeper level for the first time, how important the reception of Holy Communion, hearing the Word preached, and being with others in the pews, is to us. 

Simplicity is the final transformative attitude that I will offer (although there certainly are many, many more).  With a greater sense of simplicity brought on by the deprivations of a pandemic, we can realize that the many things we felt we needed are no longer seen as essential.  We not only can do without so much more but we can also live very happily with so much less—and paradoxically, maybe should do so to increase our quality of life. 

Writer Kathleen Norris once said with respect to change: “Disconnecting from change doesn’t recapture the past, it loses the future.”  During the changes wrought by a pandemic we have a portal to a deeper faith, greater personal maturity, and richer opportunities for compassion.  Whether we will simply stand on the doorstep of such an opportunity complaining about losing past normality, or we will take advantage of the opportunity to walk through the spiritual door to new life, is up to us.  Since the calling is there, why not take it? 


Dr. Robert J. Wicks, who speaks on resilience, self-care, and the integration of spirituality and psychology, is the author of Perspective: The Calm within the Storm (Oxford University Press) and Heartstorming: Creating a Place God Can Call Home (Paulist Press).  


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