Growth Through Pain

For the Week of June 9, 2014
by Rubel Shelly

There’s a good chance you know the term “post-traumatic stress disorder” or simply “PTSD.” It refers to the psychological, social, and biological distress that can debilitate people who have experienced life-threatening events.

Military combat, natural disasters, terrorist incidents, violent personal assaults such as being shot or assaulted – all can trigger post-traumatic stress disorder. There may be flashbacks and nightmares. Some have difficulty sleeping. Others are unable to function in social or family life. PTSD is real.

Contrary to popular opinion, though, most people who survive such traumas do not develop chronic mental health problems, lose the ability to function, or find it impossible to negotiate life. Researchers are studying the two-thirds to three-fourths of people who don’t develop PTSD from their suffering.

Mental health experts are becoming increasingly interested in what some are calling “post-traumatic growth.” They are examining accounts of people who emerge from severe life crises feeling enhanced rather than diminished. Those people speak of spiritual development, stronger personal relationships, greater personal strength, deeper appreciation of life, and clarity about priorities.

“We’re talking about a positive change that comes about as a result of the struggle with something very difficult,” Dr. Lawrence Calhoun of the University of North Carolina said. “It’s not just some automatic outcome of a bad thing.” To be sure, some people bring a fuller sense of security in life to a trauma. They have a better support system. They had already learned to rely more on God than self.

Given the opportunity I have had to be involved with people in time of severe life crisis, I have witnessed this phenomenon on several occasions. A woman left with a four-year-old child when her husband died of an aneurysm. A man whose successful company went bankrupt in the Great Recession. A couple with a child born with severe mental handicaps. A close friend who was burned severely in the crash of his Cobra helicopter. These people endured, triumphed, and inspire others of us to be stronger than we would have been otherwise.

God created body, mind, and spirit to be marvelously resilient. Combat or crash, divorce or bankruptcy, cancer or loved one’s death – each has the power to crush or dignify, disorient forever or reorient to the people and things that matter most. Since the capacity to overcome is from God, we are far more likely to do so when consciously seeking him rather than fleeing him in our confusion.

Tragedy gives no quarter. Grace withholds nothing the sufferer needs.