It’s been on my mind for weeks – months, even – to finish this series on starting over. But what to say when you don’t have an answer? What comes next after experiencing (or inducing) massive change, allowing yourself the time and space to deal with it and accepting the inevitable two-steps-forward-one-step-back nature of recovery?
This morning, I remembered.
Sometimes it’s hard to put your finger on even the most basic of truths until something causes the muddled, separated components of insight to coalesce into clarity. Then the brain snaps, as it did for me this morning, “Oh! Right!” The catalyst: an article in The New York Times which led to a Google search which led to an article in Scientific American. And I was reminded of what I truly feel is at the heart of all starting over. Apparently it’s called “post traumatic growth”.
I don’t know why it is so, but difficulty seems to be our best, most impactful teacher. Joy is beautiful. Laughter and love renewing. Flow is profoundly comforting. But discomfort forces us to re-evaluate, widen our capacity for compassion and think outside the box – mostly in the effort to get the hell beyond that discomfort. Discomfort has a purpose. I remind myself constantly that pain is an unavoidable part of life. I try to be patient with it. Accept. Endure. It passes. Recover. But pain has an associated function: growth. I’ll throw a bonus function in there, though admittedly it is very individual specific (as in you can embrace this or not – your choice): the gaining of wisdom.
So, “post traumatic growth” according to the scientists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun, who coined the phrase, is “the positive psychological change that is experienced as a result of the struggle with highly challenging life circumstances”. In the interests of brevity, I won’t go more deeply into the concept here. (I do however, highly recommend this article from Scientific American’s blog : https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/beautiful-minds/post-traumatic-growth-finding-meaning-and-creativity-in-adversity/) The article also includes a quote from Rabbi Harold Kushner on the loss of his son. I find it particularly relevant.
I am more sensitive person, a more effective pastor, a more sympathetic counselor because of Aaron’s life and death than I ever would have been without it. And I would give up all of those gains in a second if I could have my son back. If I could choose, I would forego all of the spiritual growth and depth which has come my way because of our experiences… But I cannot choose.
Or, as a more well known character put it in response to Bilbo’s lamenting his involvement with the ring of power in Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings trilogy:
“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.
And there it is: the stuff that happens as a result of challenging times. You know what? It’s almost always positive. Sometimes it’s profound. And though I hate that smug rejoinder so often presented as one goes through tough stuff “Oh, this was meant to happen so something better could come along”, it does have an element of truth to it. But – and this is a large, loud, adamant but – it too easily discounts the anguish of painful circumstances. If there’s one thing I NEVER want to do, it’s to dismiss the pain involved with difficult experiences, as if it is of no account. Grrrr. I hate when people do that. Bad people! No bone! Go to your room!
I hope that it’s possible, just a bit, to hold the idea of post traumatic growth in the back of your mind while walking through tough times. Yes, do all that other stuff I mentioned: don’t hide from circumstances, let things develop as they will, maintain perspective, give “it” a rest from time to time, find your invincible summer, etc. But hold this nugget of potential positivity in your mind as well. Don’t wonder about it, worry about it or even look for it. The growth, the all-important next step or paradigm shift will happen by itself, without your pushing. Pushing just uses up energy. Energy is better spent seeking out and experiencing little bits of joy. Joy creates more energy. You need more energy. Pushing, well it just snatches up that energy and flings it down a long, dark well into oblivion, never to be seen again. Bye bye, energy! Frankly, you don’t have energy to waste on pushing. Trust me. Don’t go there.
And then, the truism that trumps them all comes into the picture. It’s a big one. And keeping it in mind while starting over is a huge step toward maintaining perspective. It’s something you know but sometimes forget. At least I know it and sometimes forget it, which causes a great deal of unnecessary angst. Ready? Here it is.
We live life forward; we understand it in reverse.
Let me repeat that.
We live life forward; we understand it in reverse.
Right? You know it’s right. We like to think we’ll understand what we’re doing as we go along doing it. Sometimes we do. But often we don’t. Often we think we know what we’re doing, only to find out later we were mistaken. It takes time and perspective to gain true understanding of our lives, our actions, the way the threads of our world come together to form a fabric that makes sense.
In starting over, we may not see just where we’re going or why we’re doing something. Remind yourself, as I do, that you’ll “get it” later. You don’t have to “get it” as you do it. Step forward based on your gut feelings, on joy and on new perspective. They will unerringly lead you in the right direction. The right direction is an outgrowth of the tumultuous events you’ve experienced and the growth that resulted. The right direction is the most you can hope for when starting over. Start moving. Trust that all you’ve lost and gained will come into play. And if you don’t quite know what you’re doing, don’t worry. You’ll understand later. Later you’ll look back on your courage and feel proud, thankful and, most importantly, satisfied. You did it. You started over. You did it well. Onward!