The Reverend Harold Wilke was a stately older man, and I was having a lively conversation with him before a meeting in Washington DC years ago, continuing as I sat next to him at dinner. We had been eating for a while and talking together, and then I suddenly noticed that his fork and knife were being held by his white-gloved feet. He had no hands or arms.
The relaxed graciousness of his presence impressed me. If I did not have arms and hands I would miss so many things. Shaking hands with people on meeting them. Hugging those in distress. Touching with my fingers those I love. Playing the piano. And all of those things don’t even address having to find other solutions to opening doors, taking notes, cooking, using a computer or texting. When I think of blessings that I am thankful for, I do not usually think of my hands. If I lost the use of my arms and hands, I would hope that I would have the quiet gracious presence of Reverend Wilke. It was as if he was more fully human.
Responses to Adversity
Adversity happens. It happens to some of us more often and/or more intensely than to others. But no one totally escapes it. We can sink under the weight of it, or we can rise up, and sometimes even rise up to live a better life than before. More fully alive. We can bounce back, and even spring up.
Resiliency is a word psychologists uses for bouncing back. Like a tee shirt that doesn’t get stretched out of shape, even if stretched far or repeatedly. But there is another term in psychology, “post-traumatic growth” which describes another outcome of hard times, trauma, grief, suffering, disability. More than bouncing back, the person grows through the event and comes out the end actually better . Post-traumatic growth describes what happens when someone hits bottom in the midst of addiction and sees themselves and the world more clearly, enabling them to emerge from addiction with stronger relationships with God and others than they ever had before. Or when a tragic event propels a person to devote their life to a social cause, rather than sink into terminal despair.
“More than bouncing back, the person grows through the event and comes out the end actually better.”
Each of us responds to dire circumstance differently, and resiliency and post-traumatic growth are predicted by various things in our lives. We may be naturally optimistic, and some of that is probably genetic. Our parents, our upbringing, the culture we find ourselves in, all can shape our responses to dire circumstances. We all have heard of people who had what seem to us the most horrendous childhoods and still seem to be flourishing. That may have even been the case for us. Yet many people seem to just go under and never emerge from the traumatic effects.
I have had the pleasure of working together with those with disabilities on a variety of projects and in a variety of settings, getting to know people with many kinds of disability. When I compare my momentary troubles or even chronic disease, with the seemingly insurmountable obstacles they have, I am in awe of the courage and faith of so many with disabilities. Spinal cord injuries, traumatic brain injury, stroke, and blindness, are just a few of the kinds of disabilities that I wonder how I would respond to. Yet the joyful attitudes to life of many with disability are an example to me, and give me hope that if I were to suffer from any of these, there is a path to flourish in unique ways.
Some Effects of Religious Beliefs, Experiences, Perspective
How we view ourselves and the world and how we see our relationship with God affect our ability to grow from trauma, or to bounce back. Those views can be influenced profoundly by our spirituality and religious beliefs, how we see our place in the world, what we find of value in ourselves, and how we assess what is a ‘good’ outcome in a wider context. Religious and spiritual beliefs can have negative effects when people encounter horrors and their beliefs do not hold water – for example when their image of God, or themselves, or their idea of the way the world should be, is just not complex or accurate enough to allow them to see a coherent picture of their life now. But for many, their religious beliefs, experiences and perspective, help to promote growth and flourishing in difficult circumstances, and protect them from sinking under.
“In a study of African American women living with HIV, more frequent daily spiritual experiences predicted decreased psychological distress and increased family cohesion.”
Why might that be? One possible mechanism is that more frequent ordinary experiences such as finding strength and comfort in your religion or spirituality, perceiving God’s love directly or through others, or a desire to be closer to God or in union with the divine, may provide protection from some of the possible negative effects of traumas, promoting resiliency and post-traumatic growth. These experiences can be measured using the Daily Spiritual Experience Scale . In a study of African American women living with HIV, more frequent daily spiritual experiences predicted decreased psychological distress and increased family cohesion . More frequent daily spiritual experiences predicted less suicidal thoughts in veterans diagnosed with PTSD  The spiritual experiences these studies refer to reflect a recurrent sense of a loving relationship with God, and a religious or spiritual view of life or set of beliefs which can give strength and comfort. The sense of meaning that religion/spirituality can give in the midst of adversity was investigated in cancer survivors. Those who started with more frequent daily spiritual experiences, were found, a year later, to have an increased sense of meaning. And that increased sense of meaning was correlated with greater post-traumatic growth .
A Poet’s Reflections on Post-Traumatic Growth
The poet Christian Wiman, who was diagnosed with an incurable cancer, expresses some of these ideas so eloquently :
“That conversions often happen after or during intense life experiences, especially traumatic experiences, is sometimes used as evidence against them. The sufferer isn’t in his right mind. The mind, tottering at the abyss of despair or death, shudders back toward any simplicity, any coherency it can grasp, and the man calls out to God. Never mind that the God who comes at such moments may not be simple at all, but arises out of and includes the very abyss the man would flee. Never mind that in traumatic experience many people lose their faith—or what looked like faith?—rather than find it. It is the flinch from life—which, the healthy are always quick to remind us, includes death—and the flight to God, that cannot be trusted.
But how could it be otherwise? It takes a real jolt to get us to change our jobs, our relationships, our daily coffee consumption, for goodness sake—or, if we are wired that way, to change our addiction to change. How much more urgency is needed, how much more primal fear, to startle the heart out of its ruts and ruins. It’s true that God comes to the prophet Elijah not in the whirlwind, and not in the earthquake, and not in the fire that follows, but in the “still, small voice” that these ravages make plain. But the very wording of that passage makes it clear that the voice, though finally more powerful than the ravages it follows, is not altogether apart from them. That voice is always there, and for everyone. For some of us, unfortunately, it takes terror and pain to make us capable of hearing it.”
For Wiman, the “flight to God,” the complicated God, the complicated flight, the complicated world, gives him the strength not to flinch from life.
I wish I did not need the jolt of suffering in my own life. But when I see greatness of heart in those around me, I seem to find it most in those who have suffered much.