Saturday, July 1, 2017

Trauma and Empathy

Lawrence Calhoun and Richard Tedeschi, professors at University of North Carolina Charlotte, have researched and written about the concept of Posttraumatic Growth—the idea that most of us experience some sort of trauma in our lives, yet we vary widely (wildly is probably a better word) in how we respond to it.  Some people are scarred by a traumatic experience and find their lives defined by it; others naturally grow from it, learning to use it for a greater good.  Their work—particularly “The Foundations of Posttraumatic Growth:  New Considerations,” published in Psychological Inquiry— is fascinating and (if you're so inclined) well worth a deeper look.  (Calhoun, L.G., and Tedeschi, R.G., 2004).

I have read their work with the open pores of a dry sponge, absorbing every drop until my brain is heavy.  The act of thinking about trauma (and its affect) takes an open mind, because “trauma” is a broad term, and we all define our it differently.  There really is no way to quantify an experience that shakes us and hurts us.  Traumas that present themselves as similar in strength and scope just don’t feel the same between two people.  Said differently, my trauma doesn’t equal your trauma, and my response shouldn’t mirror your response.

And all the while ...
I struggle to make peace with the word “trauma.”  One of the character traits, entrenched in my genetic makeup—a weakness or strength, depending on your perspectives— is my aversion to being a bother, my avoidance of being troublesome to anyone, in any way, at anytime.  So I hesitate to even use the word.  It seems… attention-seeking, somehow.  To say it feels deliberate, like the only reason to even say “trauma” is because it’s a powerful word.  It is guaranteed elicit sympathy and rage by proxy.  And I would never want to identify trauma and then have it used as an excuse— a reason to always apologize, or act like a jerk, or be mean, or make foolish decisions.

And the big, difficult, breath-stopping things that have happened to me—?  Were they trauma, per se?  Watching my parents’ marriage disinigrate and implode… was that trauma?  Dating a drunk asshole… was that trauma?  Enduring and then breaking an engagement to a decent but controlling, angry man… was that trauma?  Watching someone I love die, in a painful and undignified way… trauma?  Those halts in life when I felt loneliness and despair beyond all logic… again, is that trauma?  In retrospect, they probably would fall into some sort of definition of the word, but I still hesitate to define them as such, especially because I know they pale in comparision to some of real trauma other human beings experience.  Actually, I don’t know, I suppose, but I do know that I reallllllly don’t know the depth of awful-ness some people have endured.

Circling back, though:  I try to keep my eye on the whole trauma thing, by reading research and by observing and collecting the stories of other people. If I’m going to be a decent school principal, I need to understand trauma and the different reactions that come from trauma so I  can react accordingly.  Not intervene, mind you—it’s never my job to jump in, judge, or try to alter someone else’s trauma.  It is my job to be aware of it in others, if possible, and feel it, and acknowledge how people react to their traumas, and recognize we are all living through choices that begot themselves through it.

All of which is to say:  In my job, it's simply not possible to have too much empathy.  Genuine, true, in-the-gut empathy.  That's it, really—accepting and supporting people as they stagger and sulk and sass their way through trauma.  I'm thrilled that empathy is becoming a fashionable word, these days, because I really believe it needs to be the biggest word ever—bigger, even, than trauma—a word that explodes, large and loud and full of powerful action.  

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