Throughout human history, many people have tried to make sense of why negative events occur in our lives. One idea that is sometimes proffered and with which I take issue is that we should “learn a lesson” from these kind of experiences and that they will invariably serve as a source of strength for us. On this #SacredSpiritualGrowth Saturday, I’ll elaborate on our ability and cause to seek insight through difficult trials. I do think there is some truth to the concept that we can learn and growth through, rather than despite, minor unpleasant life events.
To me, experiences that rise to the level of trauma are not necessarily or inherently good for us nor do they always make us stronger. I would give back much of what happened to me in my childhood in a heartbeat; I don’t think I’m a better person because of it. If you’d made sense of your own trauma in a different way, I completely support you in this as I think there are multiple valid perspectives we can hold towards suffering.
Traumatic experiences are those events that threaten our life or our sense of safety in a major way. They may leave us feeling betrayed, broken, lost and without hope. They shake the core of how we see the world and our sense of right and wrong. Life may seem unfair and unjust as a result, and we may feel alienated from “other people” who we perceive to wear rose-colored glasses in their assessment of how life tends to go.
These kinds of experiences can lead to a sense of spiritual growth; in fact, there is an entire body of research on “post-traumatic growth.” One moderating factor in enhancing development after trauma is social support. In other words, my take is that people are most able to grow after a tragedy when they feel supported by others during and after the trauma. For example, if a natural disaster strikes and causes issues with housing and employment, people may gain strength in their faith if lots of people are there to assist them and to lend aid during recovery.
Where trauma is especially likely to cut a ragged wound is when we go through it alone, and when we experience others as turning against, not towards us, as we try to recover from it. The individual who is rejected from every possible place of refuge, and whose life begins a downward spiral after a natural disaster is less likely to emerge from it, at least for a long time, with a sense of a deeper spiritual connection. On some level, I think the Divine becomes conflated with other people for most of us, so that to the extent that we feel distant from people, we are likely to experience a breach between ourselves and the Divine.
I think there are minor inconveniences and everyday types of problems that come our way through fate that we can use as a catalyst for spiritual growth. There is no clear dividing line between traumatic experiences and everyday obstacles. What one person finds minor may be a major trigger for another individual. I am not concerned with deciding for others the types of life experiences that fall into this category of “growth fodder.” Discern for yourself the bumps along the way that you can use to make meaning and to draw out the character traits you seek to display.
I believe life unfolding in a way that runs counter to our plans invites us to contemplate certain questions. These include:
- What do I really need in my life, and what just takes up space? What builds me spiritually?
- What are my priorities for finding meaning in my life when my goals are thwarted? Do they align with my actions?
- To what extent do I turn to Divinity and/or to my spiritual home when I am overwhelmed?
- To what extent do I allow others to connect with me and offer spiritual balm to the raw and vulnerable places in me which negative situations provoke?
- What are the spiritual rituals and practices that are particularly nourishing to me during difficult moments? To what extent do I follow through on them when they are really needed?
Signs of Spiritual Growth
How do we know if the lessons we are learning from everyday obstacles are spurring spiritual growth? I’ve listed a few signs below. They are not prescriptive or definitive! I found myself feeling like I was coming up short on every single one of them. I urge you to give yourself permission to view even a very small step in the direction they suggest as a sign you are reaching another layer of the spiritual dimension.
- The first reaction to a negative minor setback is less and less to simply react. We are able to more fully engage the “deep thinking” part of our brain and/or to respond with a wider range of emotions than we used to be able to access. This emotional maturity is intertwined with spiritual growth in my view as it is a necessary first step before we evolve to a place of having our natural response be spiritually-centered.
- We can more fully stay on track with our spiritual focus even when things aren’t going our way. We continue our daily rituals and meditation. We engage in deep conversations with others.
- We are more able to own our own role in situations that occur to us. For example, if I act in a hostile, abrupt manner towards others, and then do not get the help I need from them, they are not simply incompetent. I’ve increased their inability to help me by treating them rudely. This place of personal responsibility can then empower us to make more viable choices as to how we handle moments of challenge.
- We increase our ability to display the values and beliefs to which we ascribe in terms of how we face obstacles. For instance, if we believe being in nature provides an opportunity to connect with the Divine, we seek outdoor spaces as a respite during difficult situations.
- We expand our focus to include giving attention to the things for which we are grateful and to the hopes to which we hold fast, even when other areas of our life are experiences in suffering.
In examining these concepts, I’ve written only in reference to the impact of external events on us. We are also buffeted by the winds of our internal thoughts and feelings. I suspect there may be a similar division in regards to inner experiences. As someone who struggles with the symptoms of multiple mental disorders, I find these akin to traumatic experiences in that the best I can currently do with them spiritually is to accept them. Some individuals encapsulate their mental health conditions as a part of their identity and see themselves as incomplete without them. As for me, I do not think they have improved who I am and I’m not pleased to have them in my life.
At the same time, the inner shifts in mood and thought that we all experience, such as a fleeting bad mood or a temporary anxious thought, can perhaps lead us to deepen our spiritual walk as we dig in to what it means to be human. We can sit with the negative moment and examine what it has to offer us. I would not want to be perfectly happy and stress-free all the time, because I think life would lose nuance and color in a mono-state.
As I mentioned several times, I have but one perspective on the idea of life teaching us lessons, and I hope to start a conversation about what your view on this is. I am very interested in seeing how the division I’ve made squares with your experience of your spiritual journey, and the extent to which the signs of spiritual growth I’ve shared fit how things have gone for you. Perhaps together we can hone in on some tried-and-true ideas for those moments when things don’t go our way.