“Can’t find a house, my business is tanking, there’s a global pandemic and I’ve got terminal cancer. But you know… worse things happen at sea. Not much worse, but worse.”
That’s my husband talking and we both find it funny. We lurk in the dark corners of black humour when things are challenging, as they are now. It gives us distance, helps to right our little ship when it starts to list.
I’ve written about my husband’s cancer before so in this blog entry, I want to focus on other peoples’ life challenges and how they get through them. How sometimes they become stronger because of them.
The idea of growth through suffering is a thousand years old. Wend your way through Buddhism, Islam or Hinduism. Take a scoot round the thinking of the Hebrews, Greeks and early Christians. Post-Traumatic Growth (as a psychological theory) has only been with us since the 1990s.
Chris Morris writes about the long-term impact of Covid and post-traumatic stress. Doctors are also acknowledging some patients are experiencing post-traumatic growth — that they’re emerging from the pandemic with a new outlook on life. Julie Highfield is an intensive care clinical psychologist: “There are some people who, no matter how difficult this has been, find themselves in a more positive frame of mind. People feel it’s a chance they never thought they’d have. They are determined to live their life well.”
In fact, it’s wider than Covid. Half the UK’s population say they’ve developed or grown after a challenging life event. I went to a training session recently that was run by psychologist Dr Steve Taylor (on Zoom of course). For 13 years he’s been researching people who experience adversity and transformation together.
“The more you’ve suffered and the more stuff you’ve been through, the more playful and light-hearted you can be about life.” Helen, Spoon-by-Spoon interviewee
In 2017, Taylor studied 90 people who experienced post-traumatic transformation. He asked what their triggers were. Over a third said psychological turmoil, e.g. stress, depression, loss, bereavement or combat. In 2020, he interviewed 16 people to find out what changes they had experienced after bereavement. This is what they said:
- Less materialistic — 15 out of 16
- Less afraid of death — 14
- More loving, trusting, appreciative or grateful — 13
- More open, authentic and compassionate — 13
- Changes to their goals (more internal, more altruistic) — 12
- Greater appreciation and connection to nature — 10
Blunt trauma (physical or psychological) can wake us from our slumber. It can break our seed case so a better version of ourselves can emerge.
“There’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” Leonard Cohen
This is what happened to some of my Spoon-by-Spoon interviewees: John felt that his life wasn’t on a good track, “my ambition and my focus on status and achievement risked taking me over the edge.” He went on a course with work, which included in-depth coaching and a lot of introspection. “As part of that I got in touch with emotions and memories that were very disturbing, which threw me into a different consciousness. I didn’t have a language for it. I didn’t have a conceptual framework for it, but I had this experience that I couldn’t deny, and I knew it had changed me.” Because of this event, his life has taken a different and more meaningful course over the past 24 years.
Orla’s lung collapsed suddenly and she had to have emergency surgery. But it went wrong. For 12 years she’s continued to be quite unwell and her life has changed dramatically. Despite this, she doesn’t want to go back. “I feel like I’ve evolved. I understand so much more about life, about kindness, about people. And how being the best at something doesn’t matter a jot. Like being clever, working hard — none of that matters. I didn’t know that before all of this happened.”
Rob went through some dark times. He left the family home and his children then went through a separation. He was suicidal and at one point, “was really close to checking out.” But despite this he says, “I’m single now, but where I felt alone my whole life, I don’t feel alone anymore. I’m still a work in progress, but I do feel I’m finally putting all the pieces of me together. I’m reaching an interesting time in my life.”
Cecilia lost everything at once — her career, her partner, her dreams of buying a new house and having a child. She put all her possessions into storage and then the storage facility burned down. “It’s been probably the worst time of my life. There’s obviously a lot of sentimental stuff that I lost. Things from my grandmother, things that I’d collected over the years from living abroad. You just you can’t replace them. It’s the memories that really upset me.”
However, with distance she is becoming stronger. “How wrong have we got it in our society now? When people can be so happy with so little, yet we are so miserable with so much? It really, really impacted me.” She felt she needed to make dramatic changes to her work and life. “The universe is saying ‘you need to change what you’re doing because you’re not really living the life you’re meant to be living.’“
How can we learn from this, even if we’re not personally going through trauma right now? What can we discover from these people who have come out stronger? Taylor says whatever we experience we need to fully embrace it. “Rather than pushing away our predicaments we need to go towards them.”
He says we need to explore our reactions and feelings — reach out and really hold them and it will make the negativity shrink. “We need to move into a mode of acceptance and stop resisting. We need to let go and embrace the situation. That will harness the transformational potential.”
Taylor interviewed a man who was going through Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). “There’s a point in a process where you hand over your problem, because it’s too big for you to deal with on your own.” His interviewee told the AA group, “’This is too big for me. Take away my problems because I can’t deal with them.’ And at that moment he experienced a shift. It was a moment of acceptance, it was a moment of surrender.”
I’m not a religious person, but I’ve always liked the Serenity prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971). You can remove ‘God’ if that feels more comfortable. I find it still works as well.
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change. Courage to change the things I can. And wisdom to know the difference
We need to learn to accept what is happening to us all — in our personal lives and in this troubled world. If we can let go it will help us be calmer, less troubled. And don’t we all want a bit of serenity right now?
This is part of a series called Spoon by Spoon — a project I’ve run interviewing 100 people going through career, relationship and wider life changes. If you’re looking for support with your own career or life change find out more here.
Photos copyright of Charlotte Sheridan