Turning Distress into Joy, Part V and Final: Meaning & Transcendence

James Schroeder, PhD
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It was not the dawn flooding the bay with splendor which woke Frederick…rather it was a gradual awareness of flaming words…all around him—living things that carried him down wide rivers and over mountains and across spreading plains.  Then it was people who were with him—black men, very tall and big and strong.  They turned up rich earth as black as their broad backs; they hunted in forests; some of them were in cities, whole cities of black folks.  For they were free; they went wherever they wished; they worked as they planned.  They even flew like birds, high in the sky.  He was up there with them, looking down on earth which seemed so small.  He stretched his wings.  He was strong.  He could fly.  He could fly in a flock of people…

—  Excerpt from There Was Once a Slave, by Shirley Graham

Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey (later known as Frederick Douglass) was born a slave circa 1818.  After being separated from his mother as infant, and later from his grandmother, he was sent to live in a plantation nearby only to be eventually placed into servitude with the Auld family in Baltimore.  Despite a Maryland law prohibiting slaves from being taught to read, Frederick acquired early literary skills from a member of his master’s family.  But after acquiring further abilities and gaining recognition as a teacher himself, he was sent to local farmer who had the repute of being a “slave breaker.” Frederick barely survived one particular beating that left him bleeding and near death in the woods.  With the aid of two mysterious individuals, Frederick found himself in a moment of transcendence as described above, eventually on his way to freedom.  His life would become one of great meaning as social reformer, orator, writer, and leader of the movement to abolish slavery for good.

For all who suffer, like Mr. Douglass, meaning must first come through survival.  But at some point, a question emerges about whether distress and misery mean more than the pain one feels.  An inquiry of transcendence appears.  In a study of those affected by severe childhood trauma (Skogrand et al., 2007), surviving is defined as “to continue to exist or simply to stay alive” (pg. 256).  For those who survive, they are able to find a way through each day that comes, but past trauma still exerts significant control over their life.  But with those who transcend, there is a sense of rising above the ordinary physical and psychological state.  Although traumatic experiences themselves may remain as definitive and directive circumstances in a person’s life, transcendence provides an escape to a more meaningful, and often joyful existence.

It appears that in the journey towards transcendence there first comes a growing awareness that something more exists beyond the palpable struggle.  In the study mentioned above, awareness was generally followed by a sense of resiliency, of fighting back and persevering against the many restrictive forces, including self-blame.  As noted in a study of male survivors of childhood sexual abuse (Grossman, Sorsoli, & Kia-Keating, 2006), resiliency partially involves constructing a cognitive framework that makes sense of a traumatic past.  This may include a recognition of the perpetrator’s own struggles; it may be an acknowledgment that being mistreated does not mean the victim received “punishment” for being a bad person.  Gradually for many, acceptance of what has happened, and of roles that others may have played, seeps in.  At some point, opportunities for forgiveness emerge.  It seems the avenue of forgiveness then becomes directly tied to helping others, resulting in a posited “altruism born of suffering” (Staub & Vollhardt, 2008).  For many, this all leads to a greater sense of purpose and meaning, often through spiritual endeavors.

Although trends suggest stages towards transcendence, the reality is that “making meaning” of suffering runs a varied course.  However, three themes (e.g., Grossman, Sorsoli, & Kia-Keating, 2006) seem to apply:  meaning through reason and understanding, meaning through action, and meaning through spirituality.  For those who find meaning through action, a “survivor mission” often involves creating purpose by channeling negative energy they feel into actions that matter, and can help save others from perpetration.  Some find meaning in slowly removing the intrapsychic barbs.  Some even find meaning in creative and artistic endeavors.

But is true meaning a fleeting, far-reaching reality?  Some philosophers have suggested that few ever reach its promised shores; others believe it is essential even to survive. It seems this paradox cannot be. In a recent study (Heintzelman & King, 2014), two researchers from Missouri set out to address these two questions:  Is life truly meaningful at all, and if so, is it available to many or just a few?  Their extensive review and analysis suggested that life is, in fact, both very meaningful and ubiquitous at a high level.  And not just for those who superficially seem to have few struggles.  Polls taken by those hospitalized with alcoholism, in cocaine recovery programs, over the age of 85, and those critically ill all said the same thing:  life has great importance.

So if life is in fact so full of meaning, why is it that only a limited number of people indicate they are thriving in their daily lives?  Studies (e.g., Keyes, 2002) have generally noted that less than 1 in 5 people in the United States report that they are flourishing.  More report that they are languishing or even worse.  It is understandable that many people struggle greatly due to adverse experiences. But often those with the worst experiences don’t report the most distress, and those with only minor difficulties seem to barely get by.

Beyond all other issues, three restraining personal factors repeatedly seem at play.  One is the reality of self-blame, as contrasted with self-worth.  While the former is associated with a sense of unworthiness and helplessness, the latter speaks of an acute mindfulness of the value that each of us have.  Self-worth should not be confused with narcissism and/or inflated self-esteem. Narcissism involves the attribution that the individual alone is responsible for blessings granted and accolades attained.  Self-worth recognizes that much of what produces meaning and happiness is acquired from beyond.  Although we recognize that all of us commit mistakes and transgressions, the manifestation of self-worth invokes an understanding that each person is worth that of another, only expressed in a unique way.  A leader may influence by her life.  A helper may influence by his heart.  Sufferers can influence by their witness.  But all lives can have great meaning, much of which will always be beyond our poor powers to perceive.  So it seems the only thing more tragic than when people feel discarded by the world is when they are discarded by themselves.

These ideas form a converging point of trauma focused cognitive-behavioral therapy (TF-CBT).  When creating painstaking narratives of a traumatic event(s), individuals come to understand how to disentangle deep-seeded beliefs of self-blame, and reframe these with realistic attributions and acknowledgements which stresses that many factors associated with the trauma(s) were at play.  Trauma starts looking less like an affirmation of an individual’s self-loathing; it becomes more like an encounter(s) to be better understood and departed from.

Secondly, research has consistently found that attitudes must be accompanied by daily practices and environmental adjustments to provide a framework for a happier existence.  The horrors of trauma must be directly, and repeatedly, contradicted by habits of contentment.  If anxiety-provoking flashbacks persist, positive experiences must allow for new memories to be formed.  If hatred stews incessantly, then regular acts of joy and giving must replace.  If heightened arousal remains, then daily measures of calming practices and peaceful encounters must move in.  Hard as it seems, unfair as it is, if joy and contentment are desired, somehow that rock must erode away.

But beyond self-blame and habitual practices, it appears that one factor looms above all.  This issue serves to bury many people in the catacombs of their own selves and enables generations of trauma to ensue.  It is the factor of fear.  Born of stigmatization or alienation or condemnation or complete objectification, the dictatorial nature of fear knows no bounds.  In order to find meaning and transcendence, one must again find hope, and faith, and ultimately love.  Fear prevents love.  Without love of some kind, encountering regular joy becomes unlikely, and distress is always a window away.

So with that, I will end this series with a personal prayer that came out of a moment of my own frustration and futility years ago and took me down a path never intended.  It later became part of a devotional entitled 40 Days of Hopeful Prayer.

It is simply entitled Fear:

There are days when the worry seems to dominate me

When I cannot see outside my head

My eyes reflect in those I know well

Although so much is left unsaid

I do not wish to fear the fear that seeps inside

Nor do I desire for the anxiety to take hold

But, as one perseveration seems to improve

Another one begins to unfold

Alas, I receive Your grace

And Your clarity rings through

I sense that with my worry

I am given an opportunity to do

For although the straight path seems more safe

And the unknown has much to fear

I sense that You are urging me

To come ever more near

To the purpose You are asking of me

To the image You have created long ago

To the journey that lies in store

Of that which I do not know

So here I stand at this moment now

If this be the case, I truly implore

That instead of only seeing what may go wrong

Let me see the possibilities in store

Let worry not immobilize my soul

Or freeze me where I am

But let it spur my body to act

And my mind to create again

If all else fails, though

And the shadows begin to close in

I ask that You push me forward

Through the walls that lie within

* * * * *

 

References:

Grossman, F.K., Sorsoli, L., & Kia-Keating, M. (2006).  A gale force wind:  Meaning making by male
survivors of childhood sexual abuse. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 76, 434-443.

Heintzelman, S.J. & King, L.A. (2014).  Life is pretty meaningful.  American Psychologist, 69, 561-574.

Keyes, C.L.M. (2002).  The Mental health continuum:  From languishing to flourishing in life.  Journal
of Health and Social Research, 43, 207-222.

Skogrand, L., Singh, A., Allgood, S., DeFrain, J., Defrain, N., & Jones, J.E. (2007).  The process of
transcending a traumatic childhood.  Contemporary Family Therapy, 29, 253-270.

Staub, E. & Vollhardt, J. (2008).  Altruism born of suffering:  The roots of caring and helping after
victimization and other trauma.  American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 78, 267-280.

 

27 COMMENTS

  1. I am one of those who “transcended” trauma to live a productive, peaceful and, yes, at times joyful life. Like most success in life, however, mine was the result of genetic qualities over which I had no control, helpful witnesses in early life, and just plain dumb luck. I disagree with recommending forgiveness, gratitude, etc. to those who have experienced life-altering trauma. Even if you yourself are a survivor of trauma, recommending a path that worked for you to others is fraught with peril, in my view. Each individual has to find his or her way through the tragic ‘distress’ of having been victimized early in life. It will be a different path for each person. Forgiveness can be absolutely the wrong thing for some people in some situations. Helping others–well, there’s a knife-edge between helping and being a martyr. As for spiritual disciplines that encourage us to look for help outside ourselves. Ouch! That can be so debilitating for trauma survivors whose trauma included being made helpless. I get that you are trying to help others heal. I hope my remarks here will prove helpful to some, even if they are irrelevant to others.

    • Thank you, Ann. Yes, your remarks are very helpful to me. I’ve read all five of these articles and I’ve had a very difficult time even commenting on them. Now I don’t have to, because you have so elegantly stated everything that concerned me about them. I’ve been told by someone who was abusive to me that I “had to learn how to forgive and forget,” so articles like these make me go nonverbal pretty quickly.

        • Thanks for sharing the article. An honest woman willing to say things that are not popular. She’s willing to talk about the things no one wants to talk about.

          It’s the same with trauma; no one wants to admit that our society is messed up and that our children are paying the price in all kinds of abuse. And we don’t want to hear about all the horrible things that have been and are being done to children. Why is it that a sexually abused child has to tell, on the average, seven adults before they’re believed? And almost no one knows about the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study which revealed that child sexual abuse is common, rather than a rarity as most people assume. One hundred twenty-four billion dollars are lost to the American economy every year due to child sexual abuse but you don’t hear anyone in Congress talking about this problem.

          There are a lot of very hurt people, adults and children, in this country and we can’t afford to sit around and talk about transcendence and making meaning. We’ve got to admit that very bad things are done to lots of children, often by their very own family members, and then we’ve got to begin listening to these kids and doing something to help them get out of their horror. The Jerry Sanduskeys and pedophile Catholic priests are only the tip of the iceberg.

          • Hi Stephen,

            I find the issue of childhood trauma one as you say being almost ignored.

            Has beating children in the US been made unlawful? Or is it still allowed?

            I know here they stopped publicly flogging children in schools in the late 1970s. They have a collection of books in the State archives called “punishment books” that record all of the public floggings that were dished out and by whom. I did try to get access to them when I was at college, as I wanted to look into where those who were given the worst treatment ended up.

            Of course my application for access was denied as expected. Sure would like to examine them though. Maybe in my next life.

          • Stephen, I was one of those kids, back in the 60s, when it was not only not talked about, it was completely and totally 100% kicked under the rug–by parents, in some cases, certainly in mine, no less–and allowed to fester, as though nothing had happened. Talk about crazy-making, literally. That’s a disaster waiting to happen, like around college age, right on cue.

            When I talk about healing, finding meaning, and ‘transcending’ the trauma, it’s to be an example of someone who did, in fact, heal through this perspective. I think I can’t afford to NOT talk about this aspect of it. To me, aside from actually healing from the trauma of abuse–sexual and otherwise–and talking about the kind of personal transformation that can be experienced from having faced the underbelly of humanity in such a direct way, as opposed to feeling condemned to chronic suffering, as I’m afraid many do, I feel that I am, indeed, doing something highly constructive and productive.

            While I’m doing the best I can to spread a hopeful message that these things do heal–not with a one shot magic bullet, but with focus and systematic healing–I’m all for preventing others from going through what I and countless others have. Any suggestions?

            Indeed, the family structure is in big trouble. Families are turning on and killing each other. It’s all over the news daily, multiple stories at a time. I’d love for this to be the focus of any kind of movement. It’s where society is cracked, like the San Andreas Fault. What has happened to families?? And what’s the solution?

  2. James, really wonderful piece and, I think, an extremely clear and articulate conclusion to your very thoroughly reasoned series.

    I love all of what you have to say, here, and I agree, this has been my experience. I especially loved this:

    “Self-worth recognizes that much of what produces meaning and happiness is acquired from beyond. Although we recognize that all of us commit mistakes and transgressions, the manifestation of self-worth invokes an understanding that each person is worth that of another, only expressed in a unique way. A leader may influence by her life. A helper may influence by his heart. Sufferers can influence by their witness. But all lives can have great meaning, much of which will always be beyond our poor powers to perceive. So it seems the only thing more tragic than when people feel discarded by the world is when they are discarded by themselves.”

    That is so humbling, and from my perspective, truthful. We certainly have control over how we perceive anything, and with practice, as you say, we can always broaden our perspectives to create new meaning out of any events in our life. (The only word I would want to change in that paragraph is where you write, “beyond our poor powers to perceive.” I’d replace ‘poor’ with ‘limited,’ only because it sounds less evaluative and more neutral). Still, I agree that there are perceptions beyond our scope, although we can certainly make it a point to strive to see things from a higher and more neutral/compassionate perspective.

    This is so beautifully validating to each member of any collective, without shunning, excepting, or marginalizing anyone. Each and every human being has intrinsic value, each moves the energy of the collective one way or another, regardless of our judgments or reactions to anyone. We are all connected, whether we like it or not. That’s certainly how I see it.

    I believe it is so healing and personally empowering when we can each be aware of and internalize this intrinsic value we carry, at all times. We tend to vacillate in this awareness, but it’s a good thing to remember when we are feeling the opposite.

    I believe if we have the intention to feel happy and joyous, regardless of anything, we can find that avenue, if we can find that connection to what is beyond our physical awareness. This broader consciousness is what I found gave meaning to my life, in totality, and it completely changed my world, both internal and external. As my perception shifted toward a place of meaning and self-worth, my environment transformed to reflect this, as I internalized it. It’s been a glorious transformation, all around, and it’s extended outward.

    And yes, forgiveness played a major role for me, in that it allowed me to let go of blame and resentment, own my experience from a whole new perspective, and bring in a more compassionate, lighter response to life’s harder moments. Doesn’t mean I have to hang out with those that I forgave, just the opposite. I go the other way when looking for relationship, so as to not repeat what I experienced before. Again, what you describe is my experience, to a tee.

    I always love your beautiful work, very enlightening and validating. Thank you 🙂

    • James,

      As one who is a leader who has influenced by her life, a helper who has influenced by her heart, and a sufferer who hopes to influence by her witness. And as one who does and has for decades found meaning in creative and artist endeavors, one who is searching to find meaning through a “survivor mission,” but doesn’t quite understand what you mean by “slowly removing the inter psychic barbs.” But, absolutely finds “purpose and meaning through … spiritual endeavors,” yet was defamed and poisoned by psychiatrists for belief in the “Holy Spirit” and “God,” according to my medical records.

      I find great solace and hope in the fact you believe in prayer, rather than merely denial of the Holy Spirit and worship of the almighty dollar, as my psychiatric practitioners did.

      After surviving 15 distinctively different poisoning attempts at my life, according to my medical records (and research), one really loses fear of death, and is grateful to Jesus for dying for her sins. No fear. Except, I no longer believe Jesus should forgive everyone, and do fear for the unrepentant psychiatric practitioners more than any other group on this planet (well, the unrepentant child molesters and murderers aren’t in good graces either).

      I hope and pray you can influence those within your profession to change their ways and repent to those they’ve harmed, because that’s actually what the Holy Bible states is needed prior to your going to God to ask for forgiveness (and what’s great is your industry has malpractice insurance, exactly for this purpose).

      And as one who has gone on a spiritual journey, explored and challenged Jesus’ theology, and found her naive hopes Jesus should save all to be incorrect. And as one who has now painted herself as seeing eye to eye with Jesus, because I now believe His theology is correct and the Way towards the ultimate goal of peace on earth.

      I hope you may help influence those who believe in the DSM stigmatization “bible” to rethink the wisdom of their defamatory and deluded belief system, and to look to the Holy Bible for wisdom and truth instead.

      Thank you for your contemplations and prayers, I’m certain they will be known by those that actually matter. And please do what you can to save others within your profession, because certainly they’ve been defaming and trying to murder the Christians for decades now.

      • And such eugenics deluded behavior in the US today, is no more acceptable than it was when the psychiatric eugenicists were trying to murder the Jews in Germany decades ago. And we all now know the DSM “disorders” today are no more scientifically valid than was claiming being Jewish was a “mental illness” in Nazi Germany.

        • On eugenics Someone Else
          According to my record one relative of mine suffered and died in a mental hospital and another relative suffered but never got treatment and went to America. BUT what wasn’t on the record was that he bcame a millionaire in America and remained one.

        • Actually, German psychiatry began murdering people labeled as “mentally ill” and the developmentally disabled long before the Jews became a target for Hitler’s “final solution.”

          In the 1930’s German psychiatry received permission and backing from the German government to carry out a “euthanasia” program against people in the “mental hospitals.” This program was applauded by the Rockafeller Foundation and was supported by many psychiatrists here in America at the 1941 annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association. The doctor who gave the keynote address at this meeting extolled the virtues of the German extermination of “useless eaters” and proposed that the same thing be done with the “mentally ill” here in America. He was opposed by only one psychiatrist out of the entire group who listened to the keynote address.

          Six German cities were designated to be the places where the first gas chambers and ovens were built. Then, everyone labeled as “mentally ill” had to fill out and submit a form which was then evaluated by two psychiatrists. If one of the two psychiatrists gave a thumbs down about a form, that person was loaded up, taken to one of the six cities, and sent into the gas chamber where they were “disposed” of and then their body was put in the oven, along with numerous others, and burned. People labeled as “mentally ill” were referred to as “useless eaters” along with the developmentally disabled and anyone else with a health problem that could get you labeled with the “useless eaters” designation. Eventually this label would also be applied to the Jewish people . Originally they used the exhaust from diesel engines as the means to asphyxiate(sp) their victims.

          When Hitler came along he realized the potential of the gas chambers and ovens for his “final solution” against the Jewish people and anyone else he hated and allowed German psychiatry to train the SS in their use. So, the Nazis were not the first to use the chambers and ovens.

          During the war they quit sending the “mentally ill” to the six cities and began murdering them simply by letting them starve to death in the psychiatric “hospitals” Some American soldiers testified about their going into these “hospitals” and finding dead bodies and people dying from starvation everywhere in these places.

          I know that there are many who will read this and say that this could never happen here in America. But look up the 1941 annual meeting of the APA and read the keynote address for yourself. In 1942, an anonymous editorial appeared in the APA’s Journal supporting this “euthanasia” program for America. It was supported by many of the foundations that were tied to the wealthy families here in America. I believe that the power of psychiatry must be curtailed as soon as possible. It already has way too much social control right now.

  3. James,

    A beautiful piece !

    I believe that love, in the purest and most perfect sense casts out fear.
    And this reminder to myself (sometimes moment-by-moment) has helped me overcome past traumas, the “demons” in y life.

    It is, IMHO, the essence of faith. A gift from a higher source. One for which I am grateful for, but can take credit.

    Duane

  4. This is a beautiful piece, but I can’t quite relate to all of it. It feels prescriptive in its suggestion that everyone has to transcend and find meaning in order to have value. Fredrick Douglas is mentioned a lot in our literature. I don’t mind, but again, it seems to suggest that in order to find meaning, one has to transcend the beating in the woods to become something truly extraordinary in order to shed the spoiled identity of the labeled self. Some of us are survivors. Many of us never achieve anything beyond bare subsistence. We still have value. Those who have died in the woods have value. Those who remain in the woods have value and never do anything beyond remaining have value. Things that are not beautiful have value as well.

  5. Thanks James,

    This has been a wonderful series of articles. As I have said in other comments they have resulted in some deep reflection for me. And I wondered what it was that caused that, and why I found myself almost annoyed by it. Sometimes music expresses how I feel better than a 4000 word essay so, this is where I started from.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=InRDF_0lfHk

    Buried in that type of thinking of course your articles have challenged the very direction I am heading. I don’t wish to experience joy, I want to ‘paint it black’. And of course it niggled at me because your right, distress can be turned to joy, and in the ways you have described so well.

    So I tip my hat to you brother, and once again thank you.

    Regards
    Boans.

  6. James, let me add my voice (a bit belatedly) to those who greatly appreciate the perspective you’ve brought through your articles. Actually, I haven’t read all of them yet, so I plan to go back and “fill in the gaps”. Ironically, as I was reading and discussing this one with my daughter–even as I was doing so because of the positive, uplifting, hopeful message–I took a temporary, dark departure into the bitter, angry thoughts that regularly re-emerge when I think about the way in which psychiatry can and does brutalize people in the name of healing and/or “stability”. In fact, I added some pretty graphic, crude remarks to those thoughts! Another irony: my daughter, who more than once has undergone very misguided, torturous experiences at the hands of psychiatry’s “healers”, does not seem nearly as subject to these forays into Bitterland as I am!

    At any rate, your article resonates with me, even as there is a part of me that resists it, for it seems to draw me to a higher, more hopeful place–the place of the One completely innocent victim/redeemer!