It’s often thought that to live a happy and meaningful life we should do all we can to avoid suffering. But what if that’s a form of suffering in itself? What if hardship and adversity can actually make you a better person and bring more meaning to your life, if only you let it?
Of course, genuine trauma and intense suffering can be debilitating. War veterans can be left unable to sleep or function after witnessing the horrors of warfare. Victims of child sexual abuse often suffer severe mental health issues and relationship problems later in life. The trauma of losing a loved one can be enough to trigger a mental breakdown.
But a common misconception about suffering is that it destroys your life forever. Many have come to believe that trauma is like a fire — it does nothing but burn, destroy, and engulf its victims, leaving them scarred and broken in its wake. However, there’s a body of psychological evidence suggesting that we can actually grow from our suffering and arise phoenix-like from the ashes of trauma, better and stronger than before.
Coined by psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun, the term “post-traumatic growth” refers to a “kind of transformation following trauma,” where “people who endure psychological struggle following adversity can...see positive growth afterward.”
People who endure psychological struggle following adversity often see positive growth afterward.
Tedeschi and Calhoun interviewed people who had been through immense suffering, such as losing a loved one, being diagnosed with cancer, or becoming a refugee. Many of the participants they interviewed claimed to have experienced “positive life changes” in the aftermath of their trauma.
As Psychology Today author Steve Taylor Ph.D. writes, “They gained a new inner strength, and discovered skills and abilities they never knew they possessed. They became more confident and appreciative of life, particularly of the ‘small things' that they used to take for granted. They became more compassionate for the sufferings of others, and more comfortable with intimacy, so that they had deeper and more satisfying relationships. One of the most common changes was that they developed a more philosophical or spiritual attitude to life.”
Tedeschi and Calhoun then developed an inventory to measure the positive legacy of trauma, a 21-point scale measuring positive responses in five categories:
Relating to Others
Appreciation of Life
Can Everyone Grow from Suffering?
However, whether suffering helps you or harms you in the long-term depends largely on your mindset.
Suffering can make you a better or a bitter person.
Tedeschi argues that there are two personality traits that make someone more likely to experience Post-Traumatic Growth: Openness to Experience and Extraversion. This is because extroverts are more likely to seek connections with others after their suffering and be active in their responses, while open people are more likely to reconsider their previous belief systems.
It also depends on your outlook on life. Someone with a cynical perspective or a victim mentality, who believes that any suffering that comes their way is meaningless and unnecessary, is likely to become bitter and resentful after hardship. By contrast, those more open to internal change, who believe that suffering is instead a test of their resolve, are likely to grow and develop into a better person as a result of it. In short, suffering can make you a better or a bitter person, depending on your mindset.
Resisting Victimhood Culture
And yet today we rarely discuss the existence of post-traumatic growth or the value that can be found in suffering. Instead, anyone who rejects their victimhood status and overcomes adversity is regarded as “privileged” or a traitor to their “oppressed” identity group. In many ways, the progressive social justice movement suffers from a collective case of Manchusean’s-by-proxy, insisting that its followers remain tyrannized victims and never discover the missing pieces of themselves.
While victimhood is a tempting and attractive identity, acting today as a powerful social currency, it’s a dangerous trap to fall in. Perpetual victims often project their self-pity onto others, ruining their relationships. They become resentful and bitter, and begin to see harm and trauma where it doesn’t exist.
The meaning of earthly existence lies not in prospering but in the development of the soul.
And we’re seeing that everywhere now. Whether it’s a distasteful joke, a polite discussion of ideas, the publication of books, or even the result of a democratic election, aspects of life once considered ordinary are now not only a source of discomfort, but a source of trauma. According to the acolytes of the social justice left, words are weapons, ideas can be violent, and even the moderate, reasonable opinions of others are enough to trigger a trauma response.
Convinced that they will be weakened and wounded by adversity and hardship, many in my generation now seek to avoid discomfort at all costs. They shield away from all sources of unease, viscerally shutting down those they disagree with and ostracising anyone they deem to have an unfavorable opinion. California State University, for example, set up a “healing space” to cope with the “immense hurt and trauma” caused by Ben Shapiro speaking on campus. Students lamented the “emotional, mental, and physical effects” the talk had on them even months later, despite most of them not having attended the event at all.
The purpose of life isn’t to strive for endless comfort and happiness; it’s to battle and overcome.
But, trauma and suffering don’t have to become your identity. While having a victimhood mentality may be an attractive form of social currency now, over time, without ever facing adversity and trying to develop internally, you will accrue a debt: one which will inevitably be paid when you’re ill-equipped to deal with the later hardships of life.
Ultimately, the purpose of life is to become that person who grows from suffering, rather than shatters in its wake. Our aim should be not to avoid the darkness, but to develop a soul that can navigate through it. As survivor of the Soviet gulag system and author Solzhenitsyn wrote, “The meaning of earthly existence lies not, as we have grown used to thinking, in prospering but in the development of the soul.”
All trauma can be overcome in time and used for personal growth. Shielding away from triggering things and uncomfortable situations will only delay this process and worsen the problem. We should therefore remain wary of any social movement that scrutinizes and reprimands personal growth, self-development, and rejection of victimhood.
This isn’t to say that we should desire suffering — or that those who have been through trauma are better off in any way — but, we have to accept that tragedy and adversity are a natural part of life, and learn how to find meaning amongst them. Rather than waste our energy trying to avoid suffering at all costs, we should focus on fostering our resilience.
The purpose of life, ultimately, isn’t to strive for endless comfort, happiness, and validation from others; it’s to battle and overcome. And in that battle lies meaning, purpose, and maybe even the missing pieces of you.