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Using Struggle as an Opportunity for Growth

"One of our greatest freedoms is how we react to things"

This quote is from one of my wife’s favorite books, “The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse” by Charlie Mackesy. For Christmas, she bought copies for her four children as well as me, as she felt that the book offered some profound wisdom packaged in a delightful and engaging format. This quote in particular resonates with me as it speaks greatly to our ability as humans to be resilient and to take the hard stuff that life can throw at us and use it for grist in our own growth. Especially over the last year, as our entire planet has been challenged by Covid19 as well as greater climate volatility and social and civic unrest, this topic of adaptability and resiliency has been of keen interest to me. I have found that we can better understand resilience in examining those who have experienced post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Over the last twenty years, there has been incredible research on how to recognize and treat victims of PTSD and it has been lifesaving for many. Yet, while we have made progress in normalizing mental health, it is still extremely difficult today for people to admit that they are/were suffering from mental health issues. Depending on people’s upbringing, their culture, their profession, etc. it can be even more stigmatizing.

One of the bright spots that has emerged from all the research on PTSD is that while there are individuals going through traumatic events like battle, divorce, terrorist attacks, losing a loved one, natural disasters, and more, that do develop prolonged PTSD, Jonathan Haidt and colleagues at the University of Virginia found that there are many more who experience what is now called post-traumatic growth (PTG). That is, they were able to go through adverse and challenging circumstances that made them ultimately feel stronger, find hidden abilities and strengths, develop positive changes to their self-concept, strengthen good relationships, and gain greater confidence to face new challenges. The mindset, in other words, becomes: “since I was able to triumph over this deep adversity, I know I can triumph over anything.”

Researchers are learning so much more than ever before about what leads people down a path of post-traumatic stress disorder versus post-traumatic growth. And the great news is that PTG can be learned. It is not genetically wired into us from the start. Similar to the quote by Mackesy, the Greek philosopher Epictetus said, “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.” Indeed, we are learning that growing through times of adversity and difficulty is well within the grasp of most of us as long as we are willing to be intentional in seeing that the struggle in our lives offers immense opportunities for growth, learning, and development, and leaning into that intention through our actions and habits to have an even more remarkable life.

591 former American Vietnam POWs returned to the United States in 1973 and a great majority of them went on to live remarkable, full, productive, and joyous lives despite enduring years of isolation, torture, malnourishment, and mistreatment at the hands of their North Vietnamese captors. Their story is heart breaking if you only focus on what they endured. It is most inspiring when you focus on what they did each day while in captivity to:

· build community

· stay healthy physically, emotionally, and spiritually

· cultivate positivity

· maintain strong communications with all of their fellow prisoners

· maintain hope and optimism in spite of the drudgery and suffering each POW went through.

Many of them adopted a view that since getting captured, tortured, abused, and mistreated in such horrendous ways was so costly an experience that they had to make that cost worth it. They worked to use each day in captivity as a day to make themselves better human beings and to use their suffering as a catalyst for growth and transformation. What an inspiring way to view our own struggles and difficulties and to see that regardless of circumstance, we can choose to see even the worst possible situation as an opportunity to learn, grow and flourish.


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