Disillusionment, Posttraumatic Growth, and Resilience in Pandemic

by Jan 19, 2022Blog

When I was in college, a speaker at a conference showed a clip from the movie Instinct as an illustration for her talk. The visceral impact of that scene has stayed with me across the years and keeps coming to mind whenever I feel a lack of control in the midst of pandemic.

In the scene, a confident young psychiatrist Theo Clauder is doing a psychological evaluation of Ethan Powell, an anthropologist who has been incarcerated. Theo asserts that Ethan should cooperate with this evaluation because he, Theo, is in control of Ethan’s future. In a moment, Ethan has Theo in a chokehold, pressed up against a table. Ethan presses a crayon into Theo’s hand and gestures toward a pad of paper on the table.

He growls at Theo, “You write on this paper: What have I taken from you? What have you lost? ”

Theo writes “Control.” Ethan tears the paper from the pad: “Wrong! You never had control; you only thought you had it, an illusion! Try again!”

Theo writes “My freedom.” Ethan rips that page off as well.

Ethan tightens his hold but gives Theo one last chance to answer the question: “What have you lost? What did I take from you?”

Theo writes “My illusions.”

“Yes,” murmurs Ethan, releasing the terrified Theo. “Congratulations.”

For those of us who, in our privilege, had a certain confidence in our control of the world we lived in, the pandemic is doing the same thing to us that Ethan did to Theo: stripping us of our illusions. Though there are many people who have never had the luxury of the illusion of control due to frequent experience of external barriers caused by racial and economic injustice, many others have been dis-illusioned.

Pandemic has upended core beliefs about who we are and how the world works. Assumptions about self-sufficiency, financial security, and control have been revealed to be mythologies. We are vulnerable; our money and the protections it offers can easily disappear; we are limited in our power. We are reliant on the actions of others in a way that challenges the United States majority norm of independence. Worldviews that were centuries and generations in the making have been taken apart in a matter of weeks. We are undone. This undoing of core beliefs feels traumatic, like living through an earthquake that breaks the solid ground beneath our feet and the roof over our heads.

In the rubble of our old illusions is an opportunity, the chance to experience posttraumatic growth. In raising the possibility of growth in the midst of suffering, I’m not talking about the kind of shallow optimism that implies that everything happens for a reason. Posttraumatic growth is, instead, a kind of tragic optimism: accepting that suffering is inevitable and leaning into the ambiguity that our undoing can also be a rebirth.

The concept of posttraumatic growth is ancient; it’s a pattern that shows up in many Old Testament narratives, in the exhortations of Paul, and in the ultimate example of Jesus suffering unto new life. The modern phrase “posttraumatic growth” was developed by psychologists Tedeschi and Calhoun to describe a phenomenon they encountered in their research: many trauma survivors reported that they deeply suffered because of their trauma and that they also grew in the aftermath of trauma.  [efn_note]Tedeschi, R.G., & Calhoun, L.G. (1996). The Posttraumatic Growth Inventory: Measuring the Positive 2 – Legacy of Trauma. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 9(3), 455-471. [/efn_note] Notice that Tedeschi and Calhoun were not prescribing growth—they weren’t telling people to make lemonade out of lemons. They were observing that it was possible, that where there were lemons, sometimes the result was lemonade.

While pandemic might not be the first experience that comes to mind when you hear the word “trauma,” the impact of the pandemic meets the necessary conditions to produce posttraumatic growth. Researchers who have studied posttraumatic growth have found that it can arise from any event “intense enough to challenge deeply and even destroy central schemas, goals, and assumptions that give life meaning and purpose” (Pals and McAdams, 2004).  [efn_note]Legacy of Trauma. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 9(3), 455-471. Pals, J.L. & McAdams, D.P. (2004). The Transformed Self: A Narrative Understanding of Posttraumatic Growth. Psychological Inquiry, 15, 65-69.[/efn_note] The field of research on posttraumatic growth has provided us with a way forward in the midst of this COVID-19 trauma, in that researchers have found two significant ways that we can increase our likelihood of growth: deliberate rumination and emotional processing.  [efn_note]Ibid; Linley, P. A., & Joseph, S. (2004) Positive Change Following Trauma and Adversity: A Review. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 17(1). 11-21 [/efn_note]

Deliberate rumination means intentionally thinking through the illusions and creating a new worldview that can account for the realities you have experienced. It’s like picking up each piece of the rubble, studying it to see what it meant to you, and deciding what, if any, place it has in the new way of life you will build. Deliberative rumination is a spiritual discipline of sorts, inviting us to an ever fresh dialogue with God about who God is, who we are, and what is true about the world.

Here’s a way to start deliberate rumination if you are experiencing disillusionment. Brainstorm, with pen and paper, the sources of stress, worry, anger, and grief that are impacting you. Then choose one of those areas and write a list of beliefs that underlie that distress. Finally, see if any of those beliefs can be challenged: if they are not absolutely true, what beliefs could replace them to make a more functional, reality-based worldview? In my experience of pandemic disillusionment, for example, a key source of stress is my kids’ education. Underlying beliefs include (1) my kids’ futures are dependent on their education, and (2) being a good parent means ensuring the best education for my kids. More functional beliefs could be (1) education impacts my kids’ futures, but it is only one of many factors, and (2) there are many ways to be a good parent.

Emotional processing means fully engaging the feelings that the trauma has evoked, preferably with the support of a friend or counselor. It’s much easier to deny some of that pain, anger and confusion–to try to cover the bruises and wounds of the earthquake instead of tend to them. Feelings are rarely convenient, but, as a pastor in a peer processing group noted, ignoring them has far-reaching consequences: “What’s scary is year after year, if we deny our pain and our losses, we become less and less human. We become like empty shells with the painted face for Jesus.” [efn_note]Burns, B. Chapman, T.D., & Guthrie, D.C. (2013). Resilient Ministry: What Pastors Told Us About Surviving and Thriving. IVP Books.[/efn_note]

For those who embrace disillusionment through deliberate rumination and emotional processing, the resulting posttraumatic growth has been shown to have specific types of benefits. In particular, Tedeschi and Calhoun’s research identified five ways that people benefit in posttraumatic growth: an increased sense of personal strength; an increased appreciation of life; spiritual and existential change; seeing new possibilities; and developing new ways of relating to others.  [efn_note]Tedeschi, R.G., & Calhoun, L.G. (1996). The Posttraumatic Growth Inventory: Measuring the Positive Legacy of Trauma. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 9(3), 455-471.[/efn_note]

In other words, embracing disillusionment builds resilience. This connection was first brought to my attention by Krista Dawn Kimsey, Co-Executive Director of Servant Partners of Canada, a community transformation ministry. In an interview about how she had developed the resilience she needed for ministry, she shared her appreciation of disillusionment: “Early on mentors instilled in us that it is really great when you are disillusioned, because that reveals we were living in an illusion–and with disillusionment you get to move towards reality.”

Embracing disillusionment so you can move toward reality is harder than it sounds. When you experience disillusionment, it’s easier to push it away in avoidance of reality or to use it as a shield of cynicism in an attempt to protect yourself from future pain. But the harder choice of embracing disillusionment–fully feeling the pain and working through cognitive dissonance– opens the possibility of posttraumatic growth, and with posttraumatic growth comes greater resilience to cope in future struggles.