Shakespeare may have said it best in As You Like It:
"Sweet are the uses of adversity,
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head."
Science is now helping to explain the Bard's positive spin on adversity by researching what the New York Times recently called posttraumatic stress disorder's "surprisingly positive flip side": posttraumatic growth, or PTG.
According to Richard Tedeschi, a psychologist at the University of North Carolina who studies PTG, people are routinely reporting positive changes from trauma in five areas:
• A renewed appreciation for life
• New possibilities for themselves
• More personal strength
• Improved relationships
• More spiritual satisfaction
Tedeschi's research and other similar studies should sound a positive note and offer some hope for people with PTSD. So why don't we hear more about this?
In a recent interview with Harvard Business Review, Martin Seligman, director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, said that part of the problem is that most of us are conditioned by news reports about PTSD to believe that stress-related illness is the normal reaction to trauma. Research shows that resilience, growth and healing are just as common or more so.
One of the best examples of PTG on the world stage is Winter the dolphin, a local hero and movie star. Winter was the inspiration for Dolphin Tale. A sequel, Dolphin Tale 2, is due out in September.
I had the privilege of being part of a small group of volunteers who helped give Winter 24/7 care when she first arrived at Clearwater Marine Aquarium in 2005 as a 3-month-old orphan. Talk about trauma. She had been hopelessly tangled in a crab pot line on Florida's east coast. She lost her mother. She very nearly lost her life. And circulation to her tail had been cut off for so long that she eventually lost it as well.
I remember CMA's vet telling us, "Your job is to give her a reason to live." Winter was so adorable and pathetic that I would have done anything for her. So my wife and I often volunteered to take the 2 a.m. shift, getting in the rescue tank with her for hours, feeding her fish milk shakes from a 2-liter soda bottle, monitoring her breathing and, probably most important of all, loving her.
It's very quiet and peaceful at 2 a.m. We talked to Winter. We assured her that she was safe. We refused to see her as incomplete. Instead, we chose to see her true identity as spiritually whole and we loved that wholeness. This was our way of praying for her.
After her tail was completely gone, she learned quickly and easily how to swim pretty well without it and eventually almost perfectly with a prosthetic tail. We saw resilience, playfulness and the normal joy of a child, seemingly untouched by the trauma. Here was living, breathing proof that extreme physical trauma can be met and overcome.
And the story gets better.
Winter has become an international PTG symbol. She has spent the past several years, when she wasn't chilling on the set with actor Morgan Freeman, helping to heal and rehabilitate wounded soldiers and children facing special challenges. Like Winter, they are finding a way to transform trauma into growth and prove their wholeness.
As both research and experience are now proving, when confronted with trauma, we sometimes do have a choice. American philosopher William James told us in a previous century, "The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another." And one of his New England contemporaries, Mary Baker Eddy, a Christian leader and author of Science and Health With Key to the Scriptures, assured us that "trials lift us to that dignity of Soul which sustains us, and finally conquers them."
As "ugly and venomous" as trauma can be, we can choose to meet it with spiritual resilience and courage. We can grow instead of wither, and, like Winter, we can find the "precious jewel" of wholeness.
Bob Clark is a Christian Science practitioner from Belleair. Read his blog at simplyhealthyflorida.com.