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
* * * * *
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.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.