The famous Nietzsche quote is a contender for a failure embracing tagline. As well as the title of a book… ‘What Doesn’t Kill Us’ by Stephen Joseph, professor of psychology, health and social care at Nottingham University. I especially liked his turn of phrase turning some of life’s most extreme adversity on its head – “post-traumatic growth”. In examining this phenomenon, he provides a fresh perspective on treating adversity.
- “Many years of research into post-traumatic stress have convinced Joseph that people who encounter something shocking or life-threatening often thrive as a result; that alongside suffering and stress they achieve what he calls ‘post-traumatic growth’. ‘People tend to talk about how their sense of self has changed, how they’ve become more compassionate, or wiser, more mature as a result of what’s happened to them,’ he says. ‘Very often, their priorities have changed. We all tend to spend our days rushing around, going to work and concentrating on our careers and maybe family and friends get pushed into the background. After a trauma, people value their relationships. What was in the background comes to the foreground and the chasing of wealth and status gets pushed away.’
Joseph’s observation in “changed priorities” echo the insights of my father’s possibly signature sermon “It Could Have Been Otherwise” where he reflects on a giant tree falling on his moving car inches and/or nanoseconds from instant death. It was a tragic accident, the Zeebrugge ferry which capcized on this day in 1987 killing 193 that inspired Joseph’s own examination…
- “In a survey three years after the event, he asked whether their view of life had changed for the better or worse. To his astonishment, although 46% said their outlook had changed for the worse, almost as many — 43% — said it had changed for the better…This led to a career-shaping belief that much of our approach to treating people suffering from trauma is wrong-headed. In his book, he writes scathingly of the growth of a ‘trauma industry’ that feeds on the distress of people who have been through life-changing events, so much so that therapy itself has become part of the problem. He believes we have developed a ‘medical’ approach that ‘puts therapists in a doctor-like position, which takes away from the patients the responsibility for their own recovery . . . the very word patient is problematic because it portrays the person as someone who is damaged, impaired, deficient, maladjusted’…‘Going through it definitely changed me,’ says [Susanna] Pell [who survived the 7/7 London bombings]. ‘Having survived something terrifying gives you an inner strength you can draw on and learn from. Whenever I am in a difficult situation now I say to myself, ‘Well, this is nothing’. You become acutely aware of other people’s sufferings and you understand something about what it is like to go through hellish things. It has definitely made me more sensitive.’ The challenge for psychology, Joseph believes, is to create a new approach. ‘The more traditional therapist is a bit like a car mechanic. Something’s wrong with the car and the therapist is the expert who’s going to work out it’s a leaky radiator and fix it. But if we think in terms of growth, maybe the therapist should be more like a gardener who’s nurturing growth, acknowledging our capacity for transformation.’ Just trying to put someone back together mentally isn’t enough, he says. Imagine you knock a precious vase from a shelf and it smashes. If you glue it back together it may look similar, but will always have cracks. Best to try to create something new with the pieces — you might end up with a surprisingly beautiful mosaic.”