Can Trauma Really Be a Gift?

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

Stacey Kramer describes her experience with a brain tumor as a gift. She wouldn't want to wish serious illness on anyone, but her own illness was a gift nonetheless. Elements of this gift included deeper and more meaningful friendships, a strong sense of love and support, new vitality, and deeper spirituality.

Stacey's experience mirrors a body of research of which I've been a part for many years. It's the study of what my colleague Richard Tedeschi and I have called post-traumatic growth. The idea that the struggle with very challenging life circumstances can lead to positive transformation is ancient. It seems to be part of the human condition. Our work suggests that the transformations Stacey experienced are shared, at least in some ways, by many other people facing a wide range of crises. People report changing priorities, having greater appreciation for what life still has to offer, a deepened connection with others and perhaps greater compassion for others who suffer, positive changes in their understanding of spiritual and existential questions, and sometimes a radical change in the direction they choose to take their lives.

Stacey offers a deep insight on the growth experiences that can sometimes come in the aftermath of terrible struggles and she also knows that these growth experiences come at a high price. Many of us, even those for whom the encounter with trauma has produced deeply meaningful changes, would happily give up all of those positive changes if, by doing so, we could have our tragedies and losses undone. But we are not given that choice.

Is it possible to use challenging -- even traumatic -- experiences as catalysts for positive transformation? Many of us can. But it is important to remember that post-traumatic growth is not inevitable and it can't be forced. Struggles come to us all, but not all of us will experience growth. Not only that, the experience of growth does not magically eliminate our suffering in the aftermath of tragedy. It may make the pain meaningful and bearable, but growth does not undo loss and it does not eliminate adversity. So what can Stacey's experience teach us? What's remarkable about her reaction is -- she noticed. Being open to the possibility that positive change may occur, being alert to the promises that may lurk within our struggle with life's most severe challenges, and then noticing them when they emerge, is something we can all do when life takes us into trials that we would have chosen to avoid.

We are used to expecting the pain and distress but we may be surprised by the positive life changes. -- Lawrence G. Calhoun

We are very familiar with how frightening, and sometimes shattering, traumatic life events can be and we know that some of the negative consequences can follow us throughout life. We are not as familiar, however, with the reality that along with the negative consequences may come the kinds of gifts Stacey describes. We are used to expecting the pain and distress but we may be surprised by the positive life changes. These positive life changes don't make the pain and distress go away but they can enrich our lives in unexpected ways.

My word of encouragement to all of us, who as human beings have experienced or who will experience traumatic life events, is to notice -- to notice our increased awareness of what's important, to notice our re-prioritization of life choices, to notice our deeper connections to others, to pursue the spiritual questions we have and, like Stacey, to recognize that these are indeed gifts. By going through the struggle, it is possible that we will emerge with more gifts that we can then offer to others. As 19th century clergyman Maltbie Babcock wrote more than 100 years ago. "Shun not the struggle, face it, 'tis a gift."

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