Recently on National Public Radio, three trauma experts discussed what we have learned in the 10 years since 9/11. Two of them, professors, remarked on developing a fascination with Post-Traumatic Growth. The term refers to the fact that some people who go through a trauma of seismic proportions move out of their grief rather quickly, take stock of their priorities, and redirect their effort and commitment in an all-encompassing way. They do so in a way that clarifies identity and direction, stabilizes emotion, and makes them stronger for the future.
It rather amazed me that this was considered a new concept. The Chinese character for crisis is a combination of the words for "danger" and "opportunity," the possibility of two roads leading out of trauma. China has been around a long time. So who could argue that civilizations have experienced, from the earliest times, traumatic blows that challenge their very existence, and advance, or not, depending on how well they are able manage the opportunity side of the equation? Post-Traumatic Growth is no new thing either for a person or society.
So what is Post-Traumatic Growth? To put a human face on it, I saw an interview leading up to the 10-year mark with former mayor of NYC, Rudy Giuliani, who walked New Yorkers and much of the country through the hell of those days. The reporter asked him how 9/11 changed him. He paused a long minute. You could tell he didn't have a prepared response.
And then he said, 9/11 had changed him in just about every way a person could be changed.
Spiritually, as he learned to pray at his time of greatest need and got the answers he sought, enlarging his faith forever. He had awareness of his mortality. He realized we all, sooner or later, will face a situation that dwarfs the resources, skill, or strength we can bring to it. Or, as jazz great Wynton Marsalis once put it, "Life has a paddle for every behind." And it stretched Rudy Giuliani into a greater grasp of his life's work and the call the hour had placed upon him. It was as if history itself had put a hand on the middle of his back and pushed him onto the stage to lead the people of New York through their darkest hour. He discerned that his message on behalf of all New Yorkers had to be this: that though buildings may come down, New Yorkers would not be cowered by terrorist acts. That their answer had to be they would not live in fear, scared into a despair that would make them relinquish the freedoms we live by. Being the voice of that message and getting it out in those days following the attacks took him into territory he never knew he could travel. The look on his face told me this was no mere flag-waving by a veteran politician. He meant every word. He really had been stretched. He had experienced Post-Traumatic Growth.
What to notice is this: Post-Traumatic Growth turns on getting a sudden glimpse of the direction life wants you to go. It is not about being brazenly over-confident or well-prepared. No one is. You may wonder, "Wow, am I strong enough for this?" People interviewed after a disaster usually admit to such thoughts. But they also say they just did what they had to do; they couldn't have done it any other way.
As one moves into Post-Traumatic Growth, mind is shifting into HD mode and getting a picture, a vivid model of how to function optimally, for that moment and future moments. There is no division in the mind, but a rapid winnowing out of what no longer matters, and sudden clarity about what matters most and what one needs to do next. The mind seems to zero in and see the bigger picture all at once; it brings to awareness what is most beneficial and possible. So there is an economy of thought and of action for that particular context. It is a transcendent moment that may be over in a flash, like the passengers who rushed the cockpit of United 93 to save the lives of people they would never meet. Or it may reshuffle things for a lifetime, like the widow of a fireman killed in the line of duty, who started a national foundation to benefit the kids of all fallen firemen everywhere.
One gets a vivid model of the self they are meant to be. The mind accelerates toward it, getting on all levels how most of the rules, roles, and messages that pertained to one's former life are no longer relevant. One sluffs off a skin that no longer fits and moves ahead with a unified identity and mission. The energy that is thrown off in this metamorphosis is palpable to those around, the difference in strength - unmistakable. As it expands, this energy can connect with others and take them in. On the anvil of humanity falls the hammering blow of trauma that life deals out. Some metal shatters and breaks off as slag. But some metal is tempered, made stronger as its atoms rearrange, and are fashioned into a whole new instrument, capable of more.
Mark A. Chidley, LMHC, CAP, a fully licensed mental health counselor and certified addictions professional, offers counseling services at his office Kelly San Carlos Executive Center in Fort Myers, Florida.He has been in private practice since 1997. He holds certifications in Rapid Trauma Resolution (2010), Imago Relationship therapy (2001), and now specializes in the treatment of couples as well as individual trauma recovery and anxiety issues. He brings rich experience from a combined 26 years of hospital work and mental health counseling.