There is a darkness in the world and we have the privilege and the burden of bearing witness to it. With our profession and a continual exposure to death, pain, and cruelty, it is natural to sometimes feel traumatized ourselves. This is normal if we are healthy, compassionate beings and not psychopaths. But the feeling need not be permanent. There are enormous benefits to experiencing trauma. It can lead to wisdom, resilience, and even spiritual awakening. All of this is post-traumatic growth.
Post–traumatic growth (PTG) refers to positive psychological and/or spiritual change experienced as a result of adversity in order to rise to a higher level of functioning and awareness.
We are wired for trauma. Since our earliest days living in caves as nomads we have experienced violence. Back then, being eaten alive by a wild beast was a constant reality. Throughout the ancient world, wars, raiding, slaving, raping, and the extermination of entire villages occurred. Men fought each other with swords and clubs. People saw their families murdered in front of them. Women nursed the brutally injured back to health or eased them through death with mostly their hands and will.
And we survived. Not only have we survived as a species, we have thrived. Because we are built for trauma. We’re wired for it. Resilience is encoded in our DNA, especially as First Responders. Yet, sometimes as a culture we forget. Hollywood loves the victim. The helpless weeping woman. The bruised little waif. The guy going off the rails. Pain sells and it’s something we can all relate to. We all cry. We all fight to stay on track. We all sometimes feel like we’ve had the sh*t kicked out of us.
“The idea that human beings can be changed by their encounters with life challenges, sometimes in radically positive ways, is not new. The theme is present in ancient spiritual and religious traditions, literature, and philosophy.”
Nothing teaches like pain. It is the GREAT teacher. Trauma and the witnessing of death can expand consciousness and grow wisdom. All of our great spiritual teachers have suffered. Some of our greatest philosophers, like Socrates and Marcus Aurelius fought in war with swords and spears. How many men fell around them? Yet they survived and after they licked their wounds and regained their balanced they became two of the Western world’s wisest teachers. Their trauma made them smarter. It made them stronger. This is post-traumatic growth.
We may not be philosophers, but we are rescuers. We are the first response to someone else’s tragedy. We do it because we’re wired for it. The ones who aren’t, leave. The ones who stay do so because they can take it. Many of us will do this for 25 or 30 years.
Does it take a toll? Yes. Does it exhaust the spirit? Absolutely. Do some of us fall? Tragically, yes. Must we continually restore and replenish our body, heart, and soul? Damn straight. Can we be expanded by the suffering and trauma we witness? Yes we can. This is post-traumatic growth.
We are not victims. We are strong. We are the most resilient of our society. And we are all stronger together. Words have power. Post-Traumatic Growth and Resilience is a choice, a path, and a way of life. May it be our mantra and prayer.
Growth begins with healing from trauma—it is not a free pass to avoid suffering. But, as researchers now know, people have the capacity to do far more than just heal. Given the right environment and mindset, they can change, using the trauma, the suffering and struggle that ensues, as an opportunity to reflect, to search for meaning in their lives, to ultimately become better versions of themselves.
Time, Jim Renden, July 22, 2015 How Trauma Can Change You—For the Better
Upside: The New Science of Post-Traumatic Growth, by Jim Rendon
Resilience: Hard-Won Wisdom for Living a Better Life by Eric Greitens, Navy Seal
Greitens is the governor elect of the state of Missouri, and–I am saying it here!– will one day be our future president.
Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger (this is one of my favorite books of 2016)
The question is, are you aware of the philosophy you have–the assumptions, beliefs, and ideas that drive your actions? Are you aware of the way those assumptions, beliefs, and ideas add up to shape your life? Can they stand exposure to the light of day?
Eric Greitens, Resilience