I've written before about a wonderful book by Paul Pearsall called The Beethoven Factor (Canada: Hampton Roads Publishing, 2003). He shares that people have basically three ways to respond to trauma. They can become victims and be forever made cynical, bitter or weakened (always acting a victim) in the face of what happened. They can become survivors, who live through it and continue on. Or they can become thrivers which means that they deepen, become more whole and live more fully as a result of what they have experienced. He is quick to point out that being a thriver does not mean that you are always happy or always positive. It means that you live life fully engaged and allow what you experienced to make you more you. Thrivers cry, they laugh, they feel joy and deep sorrow but they do it all with depth, fully present in whatever it is that life brings at each step. They do not allow themselves to become bitter or jaded, they don't exist in the past trauma or future fear but stay in the "now" moment and deal completely with whatever comes to them.
The book was recommended to me by my spiritual director when my family was going through our deep crisis five years ago because he said that he saw me as an absolute thriver, someone who was truly deepened and who grew through the crisis rather than being stunted by it or just surviving it. I read an article that I re-posted on Facebook recently about a woman who went through a similar crisis to my own. She wrote that she is a much better human being now because of what she went through. She talked about coming into her own, not depending on someone else for affirmation or a sense of self, being much deeper and more real with everyone.
Does this sound sunny and cheery and Polyannaish? "It was horrible, but we survived it and are much better for the experience." "What doesn't kill us makes us stronger." And my own, "God is there to bring resurrection out of every death and it can and will happen if we are open to the movement of the Spirit."
Well, it's true. I am a much better and deeper person because of it. I have more compassion. I am more present with other folk and less trapped in my own being, my own thoughts, my own crises most of the time. I am wiser and know that whatever is happening really will pass - I know this at a body level, not just in theory anymore. I am calmer, more centered, more grounded. All of that is true.
But, the truth is that there still are scars as well. And there are negative changes in me, also. Damage has been done. It would be less than honest to fail to name that reality as well.
Many of you know the biggest one: I struggle deeply with trust. I am seeing a wonderful, amazing man right now. He is truly a good person, one of the best people I know in fact. He is kind, generous, loyal, affectionate, loving and present. My past does not scare him. My present does not overwhelm him. My commitments to full time church work, justice work, caring work and to three children who are also recovering and need a great deal of care do not leave him feeling abandoned or neglected. He takes on supporting me and helping to care for my kids (one of whom comes with extreme challenges) with commitment, dedication and deep love. But I hold him at arm's length in many ways. I could create a list of ways in which we are not as compatible as .... But the bottom line is that he is truly a good man, an extremely caring partner and a loving helper for my kids. And the real issue under it all is that I have no idea how to trust again. I look at him and wonder what secrets I don't know that are lurking under the surface ready to throw my life and the children's lives overboard once again and into an ocean that requires us to struggle to simply float and not sink so far from shore. I am working on this. And I will continue to work on it. But this is a deep wound that will take a long time to heal.
Perhaps a more serious change is the anxiety that plagues me now concerning other people. I've always been affected by how other people think/feel/act, always struggled with insecurity in particular. And I had hoped that having survived all the attacks and humiliations and nastiness that came our way that my skin would have toughened and I would have realized that "names will never hurt me" in a real sense - that if we could survive that, what would it matter what people say or think or feel about us now? But in fact, my experience has been the opposite. I am more anxious than before. The damage that was done to us by mis-information, by gossip, by mean-spirited people choosing to be spiteful was real. Yes, we survived it. But our lives look very different than they did before. So while in fact I have seen that nastiness does not kill us, I have also experienced that it can alter one's entire life, dramatically, radically, and in devastating ways. So new meanness carries a threat for me that is hard for me to put aside. I work on this, too. Meditation and centering excercises help, walking helps immensely: all of it brings me back to what is most important which is choosing love in the face of whatever comes - love of God, love of others and love of self.
My point here, though, is that I don't think people are one of the three things named by Paul Pearsall. I don't think we are victims, survivers or thrivers. We may tend towards one of these more than others. But the reality is that everything that happens to us affects us in a multitude of ways. Each event has lessons for us, and each brings gifts and challenges. We aren't just made better by the traumas that come our way. We also carry scars. And we aren't just damaged by the life that comes our way, we are also gifted. We do have choices. Do we work through the hurts, working those sore and torn muscles towards healing? Or do we allow them to stay torn and to atrophy? Do we choose to walk forward with integrity and commitment towards growth or do we become bitter or frozen in a cynical weakened way? Do we take our abuse and abuse others? Do we take our pains and become victimized and weak? Or do we grow and hopefully figure out ways to make things better for ourselves but also for those around us?
I write about this from a personal perspective, but I am thinking about the larger traumas that we have experienced recently in our country as well. When we choose to really feel the pain that comes and to walk through it we have a better chance of stepping forward with strength, with integrity and with the possibility of change. We can make that choice. But not without recognizing and taking time to honor, or respect, or recognize that damage has been done. Genuinely. Each person affected directly by these tragedies (or even indirectly) will need to take the time to grieve, to feel, to be angry and sad and scared and, and, and; and to work with and nurture those sore places so that they can heal. That process will look different for everyone. Some things won't heal right away. Some things may not ever heal fully. We still have choices about what to do with the pain. But we are all victims, survivers and thrivers. And we must be gentle with each other as well as with ourselves.