Growth Through Trauma

Hadassa Shemtov, West Hollywood, New York
Essays 2019 / Personal Growth

We all go through traumatic experiences in our lives. From the outside, some traumas may seem more extreme than others, but all of them shatter beliefs or expectations that we have about ourselves, about others and about the world. Perhaps you discovered that someone you deeply respected or trusted did something immoral. Perhaps you suffered a loss of someone that you loved and couldn’t imagine your life without. Perhaps you were forced to move to a new city and had to leave behind everything you knew. Perhaps you had a lifelong dream that you realized would never come true.

When these experiences come at us, our first instinct is often to blame others or ourselves. We build up feelings of disappointment, resentment and anger that can follow us for years after the experience is over. Is there a healthier way to approach trauma? And is there a way to not only recover from the experience, but turn it into a point of growth?

In this essay, we will explore a unique type of personal growth that can only come through trauma, based on the second essay from the fifth Chabad Rebbe’s famous series, Hemshech Samech Vov[1].  In this maamar, the Rebbe Rashab discusses two processes of growth. One is an evolutionary process, where there is a continuum in which one stage naturally leads to the next. The other is a revolutionary process, where growth from one stage to the next is non continuous and the only way to make the quantum leap to the new stage is by letting go of the previous one. In the language of Chassidus, there needs to be state of “ayin”, complete nothingness, before reaching a new “yesh”, a new reality.

We will explore how this expresses itself agriculturally, intellectually and in our relationships with G-d and with other people. In each of these models, the trauma is a proactive process we create within ourselves in order to reach a new state. We will then use the concept as a guideline for turning involuntary personal traumas into a springboard for growth.

(In the context of this essay, we will use the word ‘trauma’ to refer to any life experience that shatters a belief or expectation we previously had. Of course, extreme traumatic experiences require professional guidance as well.)

Agricultural Trauma: From Seed to Tree

All living plants grow and in the process they change, size, color and texture. However, none of these changes turn the plant into something new. When a seed is planted in the ground, something remarkable happens. The seed begins to disintegrate until nothing of the original seed remains. It is in that process of disintegration that the seed is able to grow into something larger than itself. It is in that moment of nothingness that a seed can become a tree.

Intellectual Trauma: From Arithmetic to Algebra

I remember the first time I started learning algebra in middle school. Until that point, math was a breeze. First we learned how to add, then how to multiply – all the rules built on each other in a neat, logical sequence. Then, we started the algebra unit and suddenly, I was lost. I learned the rules and I could follow the steps but none of it made any sense. Math was supposed to be about numbers, right? What were all these letters doing in my math book? Eventually, I figured it out. Math wasn’t about numbers at all. It was about concepts; principles that could be applied to any number. It was only once I shattered my elementary school understanding of math that I was able to gain a radically deeper understanding.

There are learning processes that are sequential, where the ideas we learn naturally build on each other and our understanding of a more basic idea brings us to an understanding of a deeper one. Then there is a process of learning, where the new idea is in a completely different realm than what we studied previously. Not only do the old rules not apply the new concept, they hold us back from understanding it.  The best thing we can do is to shatter our old assumptions, and open our minds to the possibility of something new. This is why the Talmud[2] relates that when the famous sage, Rabbi Zeira, moved from Babylonia to Israel, he fasted one hundred fasts in order to ‘forget’ everything he knew of the Babylonian Talmud. Rabbi Zeira realized that the depth of insight of the Jerusalem Talmud was completely out of the league of the Babylonian Talmud and that the only way to reach this new depth of understanding was by letting go of his old one.

Interpersonal Trauma: From Self to Other

The mishna writes, “One should only stand in prayer with a ‘koved rosh’”. Literally translated as a “heavy head”, this phrase is understood to mean an approach of seriousness or submissiveness. On a deeper level, our sages are describing the process a person needs to go through in order to have a real experience of G-d through prayer. Before we begin speaking to G-d, we need to let go of ourselves and surrender to a Being that is infinitely beyond us. The more we are able to humble ourselves and allow ourselves to disintegrate, the more we can open ourselves up to this experience.

The same is true in our relationships with other people.

When was the last time you shared a feeling or an opinion with someone and felt that you weren’t really being heard? Perhaps the listener was so stuck in their own emotional world that they didn’t have the headspace to enter yours. Perhaps they already had their own opinions on the topic and wasn’t willing to entertain another one. Perhaps they had preconceived notions about you and was fitting everything you said back into a box they already had in their head of who you were.

We’ve all been on the receiving end of this, and undoubtedly, we’ve done the same to others as well. When we speak to other people, we rarely allow ourselves to really enter their world, to entertain the possibility that they can teach us something new, to open ourselves up to who they are without making assumptions based on our past experiences or preconceived notions. The more we can let go of our own feelings, opinions and perspectives, the more we can relate to another person for who they are.

Over the past few decades, there has been a growing obsession with defining people by personality types. 2.5 million people a year take the Meyers Briggs Type Indicator, one of the most popular personality type tests. It is believed that being able to define ourselves and others by a four letter description will allow us to understand ourselves better, understand the people around us better and allow us all to better interact with each other. The test is used by teachers to cater more effectively to their students, by employers to make hiring decisions and by singles looking to find a match who is ‘suited’ for them on the personality scale.

While these personality tests might be useful in some contexts, are they really helping us understand each other better? Or is looking at another person and trying to fit them into our own neat little boxes actually pulling us farther apart?  Perhaps the best thing we could do to relate to another person is to shatter any picture we have of them at all and be open to them expressing who they are in that moment, even if it might surprise us.

Embracing Personal Trauma: From Self to Beyond

There are many areas of our lives where our choice to shatter an old belief or expectation allows us to achieve an understanding that is incomparably more profound. But sometimes, life doesn’t wait for us to create this trauma within ourselves, but instead sends us experiences that do the job for us. When we fail to see the trauma as an opportunity, we emerge feeling broken and angry. But when we examine the experience more deeply, we can recognize that those beliefs held us back from a much deeper part of ourselves. It was that experience that allowed us to discover a new strength within ourselves that we never knew was there. It was that experience that gave us a deeper understanding of ourselves and a deeper appreciation for other people. It was only through that traumatic experience that we could become something larger than ourselves. When we recognize that, we can look back at those experiences and appreciate that it was the traumatic moments of our lives that brought us to real change.

The Trauma of Redemption: A Birth Story

I spent my pregnancy reading up on everything I could get my hands on about birth. Equipped with all kinds of natural pain management techniques, I was prepared to take on the challenge of labor and pass with flying colors. I wouldn’t let myself become one of those who have a miserable, helpless labor. I would “own” my birth experience, achieving a beautiful, natural birth. Well, the contractions came and 18 difficult hours later, nothing was going as planned. When my doctor informed me that I needed to have a cesarean, I felt my whole vision for my beautiful birth come crashing down. It was like running a marathon and finding out right before the finish line that time had run out. I had failed. When I arrived in the recovery room after the surgery, I began the journey of recovering both physically and emotionally from the trauma of birth.

When I look back at the day of my daughter’s birth, I see a day that was nothing like the romanticized picture I had envisioned. If  labor and birth were meant to be another one of my personal achievements, I had failed miserably.  Yet, while it may have been the least glamorous day of my life, it was also the most transformative. On that day, the trauma of birth forced me to put aside all my own expectations of myself and my life so that I could bring a healthy baby into the world. In those hours when every expectation I had was shattered, I made the transition into a new stage of life that wasn’t about me or my experience at all. Through that trauma, I became a new person, whose life wasn’t about my personal achievements but the ___ that would come through me. Through that trauma, I became a parent.

The process of redemption is referred to as a birth[3], because every personal redemption we experience requires a trauma to break us free of the limitations that hold us back. More specifically, the ultimate redemption is symbolized most powerfully by a cesarean birth.

In a talk in 1987, on the last day of Pesach, the Chabad Rebbe spoke about the unusual term used in the  Talmud to describe Moshiach – “Keisar” or “Caesar”. The term is an allusion to the fact that the the original Caesar was born via a cesarean, a word which is derived from the Hebrew word “Kares”, to cut. A child born through a natural birth represents a change that emerges from an evolutionary growth process. A cesarean birth, on the other hand, supersedes the natural process. It defies the continuum, symbolizing a traumatic change, a growth process that is truly revolutionary.

Takeaway: Your Personal Redemption

The next time you go through a traumatic experience, on whatever scale it might be, ask yourself:

  • What beliefs or expectations did I have of myself that were shattered by this experience?
  • What beliefs did I have about others?
  • How did those beliefs limit me?
  • How has this experience redeemed me of those limiting beliefs?
  • What new understanding or perspective was I able to gain through this experience?
  • In what way has this new understanding matured me into a stronger, deeper person?
  • How has this experience transformed me into a person I could never have become otherwise?

In answering these questions, perhaps you will be able to reframe the trauma as an experience  that may have crushed you, but in that process of disintegration, allowed you to grow into something larger than yourself.

[1] “Zeh Hayom T’chilas Maasecha” 5666

[2] Bava Metzia 85a

[3] Likkutei Sichos, Chelek 17