David Brooks: Some people turn suffering into wisdom

Suffering is evil, but it can serve as a bridge to others in pain.

Barbara Lazear Ascher’s husband gave her the news in the most straightforward way. “Looks like pancreatic cancer,” he told her matter-of-factly after the test results came back.

She and their friends gave him a wonderful death. They had theme parties with matching drinks. “Dying was intimate, and I drew close,” Ascher writes in her moving memoir, “Ghosting,” “We were single-minded, welded together in the process of this long leave-taking.”

The grieving right after he died was anarchic. “You’ll think you’re sane, but you’re not,” a widowed neighbor told her. Before long, she was begging CVS workers to turn off the sound system that was playing “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” She began to fear bathing. She started giving her stuff away — later regretting it. She had visions of him on the street.

This kind of disorientation is brutal … and normal. Grief and suffering often shatter our assumptions about who we are and how life works. Social psychologist Ronnie Janoff-Bulman notes that many people assume that the world is benevolent, that life is controllable and that we are basically good people who deserve good things. Suffering and loss can blast that to smithereens.

“Trauma challenges our global meaning system,” psychologist Stephen Joseph writes in “What Doesn’t Kill Us.” “It confronts us with existential truths about life that clash with this system. The more we try to hold on to our assumptive world, the more mired we are in denial of such truths.”

This process of post-traumatic growth is more like rewriting a novel than like solving a problem or healing a wound. It’s a process of reconsidering and reorganizing — crafting a different story. This is one of those tasks, which most of us have to perform a few times over a life, that nobody teaches you about in school.

The first phase is often slow and physical. The body is still in the savage grip of raw pain. It takes time for the body to experience enough new feelings of safety and connection — with other people — to contradict the shock of loss. When experts try to do grief counseling while people are still overwhelmed, they often only further implant the trauma.

Gradually the process of re-storying begins. This is taking a now fragmented life and slowly cohering it into a new narrative. Social psychologist James Pennebaker has people do free expressive writing, sometimes for just 20 minutes a day for four days. Don’t worry about spelling and grammar, he advises; just let it flow — for yourself. In the beginning, people who take part in expressive writing exercises sometimes have different voices and handwriting styles. Their stories are raw and disjointed. But their narratives grow more coherent and self-aware as the days go by. They try on different perspectives. Some studies show that people who go through this process emerge with lower blood pressure and healthier immune systems.

In “The Body Keeps the Score,” Bessel van der Kolk says getting people to move their eyes rapidly, by giving them something dynamic to look at, loosens their memories. They become more aware of connections among dispersed events.

Then there is the process of regaining control over your beliefs. The mind is a relentless meaning-making machine. After loss, the mind, often unconsciously, leaps to wildly inaccurate and unhelpful conclusions: I’m to blame for what happened. The whole world is unsafe. The pain hurts, so it’s best to avoid it. At moments like these, we don’t always have thoughts. Our thoughts are having us.

A lot of therapy involves hovering over beliefs and emotions, recognizing them one by one and putting the thoughts on trial by stepping back and interrogating them. Will my life really crash forever, or am I just catastrophizing again? We have to struggle to regain control.

People rewrite the story of their lives not only with words but also with new actions. Suffering is evil, but it can serve as a bridge to others in pain. After loss, many people make a moral leap: I may never understand what happened, but I can be more understanding toward others. When people see themselves behaving more compassionately, orienting their lives toward goodness instead of happiness, they revise their self-image and regain a sense of meaning.

Gradually, for some people, a new core narrative emerges answering the question, “What am I to do with this unexpected life?” It’s not that the facts are different, but a person can step back and see them differently. New frameworks are imposed, which reorganize the relationship between the events of a life. Spatial metaphors are helpful here: I was in a dark wood. This train is not turning around. I’m climbing a second mountain.

Scholars differ over how common post-traumatic growth is. But I’m often around people who have this unwanted wisdom, that attitude of “tragic optimism” that Viktor Frankl describes, who see their lives as redemption stories.

I just wish our society did a much better job of preparing people for these difficult tasks and accompanying them through them when the time comes.

(AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh) New York Times columnist David Brooks at the University of Chicago, Jan. 19, 2012.

David Brooks is a columnist for The New York Times.