A very sad thing happened last week. The beautiful and majestic Thor Bjorn, our mostly-Malamute, passed away. We adopted Thor from a rescue organization ten years ago. His personality was understated and he carried himself with great grace, but he was always so loving and protective, and losing him makes me very sad. Except I feel grateful. I feel grateful that he had such a full and happy life after being abandoned. I feel happy thinking about the time I had with him, and I am so thankful that in his 14th year, he passed away peacefully, knowing he was loved.
We all, every one of us, will experience loss, pain, and trauma. The Buddha taught that because everything we experience is impermanent, it is our desires for or attachments to these impermanent things that causes suffering. There is a choice. Choose to give your attention to the negative things you have experienced, or choose to give attention to your positive experiences, even when they are over.
Post Traumatic Growth
In my meanderings through the literature of leadership, I came across the interesting concept of post-traumatic growth. The opposite of post-traumatic stress, post-traumatic growth is the development of "positive change" after a traumatic experience. A near-death experience leading to a richer and more fulfilling life. A loss of a loved one that shows you're a better person for experiencing them at all. A layoff or firing that proves your passion was elsewhere all along. What a wonderful opportunity to turn all of our bad experiences into positive growth! But lets keep a few things in mind.
Free will be damned, personality has a big impact on post-traumatic growth. Your own Need For Stability is going to impact how intensely and quickly you respond to stress. Your personality is where your thinking, feeling, and behavioral preferences come from, and it will take energy to work against them if (like me) your natural response to bad things is to be sad and angry. In times of stress, loss, fear, and trauma, it is not always worth spending the energy you need to survive on working against your natural preferences. Sometimes you just need to feel bad.
Experiences impact people differently. Over the last decade, I have heard hundreds of stories of traumatic experiences. Some were hard to listen to and impossible to forget, and some were what I would consider mundane. Each and every story had meaning for the person sharing it. What was mundane to me caused serious challenge to others. What would have killed me was a teachable moment for some. Every person has different tolerance, and different triggers. Your trauma may not be mine, but if it is important to you, I will still empathize.
Dr. Brené Brown and Dr. Susan Davis, have been discussing the concept of Toxic Positivity. The idea here--and my naturally sad and angry self is so excited about this--is that it's actually counterproductive to slap a smile on your face and pretend that everything is fine when it isn't. I come from a WASPy family where crying was highly discouraged and you never discussed your problems. Learning what I actually felt, let alone how to productively display and communicate it, was unusual. While it is important to recognize that not everything is trauma, recognize that some things just are. There are ways to encourage positive growth, but some experiences really are the worst. Our trauma shapes us just as much as our joy. You are this person because of it, and you still deserve respect, love, and belonging.
Two years ago, when my father passed away, all I could think about was a trip we had taken a few months before. My sister was dying, and my dad wanted to see her and say his goodbyes. In the car home, we drove quietly though the mountains of Tennessee as the sun set. It was a beautiful day and I was so grateful to drive him through the natural beauty of his home and just be a daughter to him. My sister died a day later, and my dad died four months after that. I don't know how I lost half of my family and still feel thankful. But I do. And I think it's important to know that you can too.
We love you, Thor!
**Erika Weed is a doctoral candidate at The George Washington University, studying leadership and trying to reconcile the seemingly competing goals of happiness and success, for herself and others.