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Does Trauma Help Us Grow?

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Chris Hazell - published on 03/29/16

Even the secular world sometimes understands that a grain of wheat must die

Can trauma help you grow?

According to an article by that title in The New Yorker, written by David Kushner, the answer is definitely yes.

Kushner’s family endured a horrific event when his 11-year-old brother was kidnapped and murdered in a rural small town in Florida. Although Kushner was only four at the time, he explains that as he grew up, he struggled to understand how his parents were able to carry on — giving both him and his other brother happy and normal lives while they still harbored the aching memory of something so awful.

The article delves into the fascinating idea of post-traumatic growth, a term used to describe how life’s meaning can deepen for someone who has endured a traumatic experience. This deepening can lead to an experience of “enhanced relationships, greater self-acceptance and a heightened appreciation of life.”

The term recalls the heroic and endurable flame of the human spirit, but it also affirms the very truths we as Catholics have struggled to understand and embrace in each new generation, for more than 2,000 years. As Jesus tells us solemnly, the barbed crown of suffering — if we allow it — can lead to a more abundant life.

“Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit” (John 12:24).

It’s interesting that from a strictly psychological and secular standpoint, Jesus’ paradoxical dictum rings true. If we choose to respond to the intense suffering in our lives with an openness to grace, then our lives can take on a deeper meaning. The article points out the type of fruit those “who have made a positive approach to separation, catastrophe, and death” experience:

“These ‘splendid people,’” as he called them, “have come through great tribulation, are open, lack defensiveness, display intensity, purpose, passion in their lives. … They show wisdom, serenity, a kind of wholeness, a curious lighthearted and optimistic participation.”

Christoph Cardinal Schönborn, in his book Happiness, God and Man, reminds us that when we lose something and are plunged into sadness or near-despair, we still have the power to choose the path that leads to life.

“Man becomes sad when he loses something dear to him: someone who was close to him, health, material goods, reputation, peace of mind, and so on. Nevertheless, one must choose here between two paths: that of retreating into oneself and the path to life.”

These words are of little comfort at the height of our personal suffering. If something traumatic and life-shattering happens, it takes the flowering of much time and grace for us to not only accept it but to allow it to foster a deeper appreciation for life as opposed to a bitter descent into despair. A grain of wheat produces fruit only gradually, and after much time.

A family friend of my parents recently and unexpectedly lost her husband. He was a healthy, kind and hardworking man who was only in his 50s. His family lives next door to my parents, and when I was visiting home this past Christmas, I would catch sight of him diligently tending the lawn or strolling across the street to fetch the mail. Only a few weeks after Christmas, due to some serious sudden health complications, he was on a breathing machine. And a few weeks after that he died, leaving behind his loving wife and two young daughters.

As I think about and pray for him and his wife and daughters, I struggle deeply to understand the reason for such tragedy. What words of comfort do we have for this poor woman and her daughters? How can such suffering lead to fruitfulness and life?

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