Remember when radical change was a rare phenomenon? When you could go for years, even decades, without something happening to make you realize the world you are living in is radically different than you thought it was? Whatever else has happened, the pace of finding ourselves required to reexamine our worlds has radically accelerated – and there’s no reason to believe it will slow down anytime soon.
The Boston bombings are fresh on all our minds – too fresh to be useful as examples. I do not intend to offer suggestions for what help looks like for the Boston victims (my friend and fellow Descriptive Psychologist Wynn Schwartz was on the scene and has offered considerable insight into what people have gone through in his blog); nor will I try here to understand why the bombings occurred (I posted an extensive paper on such matters last year called “When Worlds Collide”.) Instead I want to return to where the previous post left off: granted that our world has radically changed, what can we do in the aftermath?
First let’s be clear what we almost certainly can’t do. We can’t restore our world to what it was before. What we have seen can never be unseen; what we have lost can rarely be regained; what we now know can never be unknown. Our task is not to restore our world and our place in it; it is to reconstruct them. (Actually, world reconstruction can also be required when we gain significant new possibilities, and this can be very challenging as well – think lottery winners whose lives fall apart within the year – but that’s not our current concern.)
We begin reconstruction by assessing the damage. Someone dear to me is dead or badly wounded; I myself have suffered grievous injury; my faith or core convictions about the world or myself have been shattered. What all these have in common is this: I have lost the possibility of being or doing important things, and the difference is very significant. To say that my world has radically changed is to say that it is no longer possible for me to be and/or do what I once could.
Descriptive Psychologists use the term “behavior potential” to refer to the entirety of what a person is eligible to do, by virtue of their history, personal characteristics, places in their communities and circumstances. When my world radically changes, some significant portion of that behavior potential is lost – and people are strongly, intrinsically motivated to avoid loss of behavior potential, and to try to regain what was lost.
So predictably we first see people struggling to come to grips with what was lost. This often entails shock, denial, grief or mourning. This is trauma, and one goes through it as best one can, at one’s own pace. Supporting someone through this seems to call essentially for compassionate listening and simple human kindness. Assurances and attempts to make sense of it all at this point are usually more comfort to the giver than the recipient. A person has to recognize and acknowledge how things no longer are in order to turn to how things can and will be from now on.
With severe trauma there is the risk of getting stuck, where the event is not something that did happen but rather something that continues to happen in the present. PTSD is the most clear-cut example: The experience of the explosion, or the assault, or the auto accident continues to intrude into the present moment, as if it were happening now. (Another friend and Descriptive Psychologist, Ralph Weschler, and his colleagues have developed and tested in practice effective means of dealing with or even preventing PTSD; we know much more than we once did, and still have a long way to go.) Clearly, it is difficult to reconstruct a world that keeps collapsing on you.
Now we arrive at the aftermath: we are through the paralyzing trauma, and ready to proceed forward.
First, what do you do when it’s your world that needs reconstruction? Any journey begins where you are, and you undertake it with what you have at hand. You have assessed the damage; you see what is missing and acknowledge that it’s not coming back. Now you turn to recognizing what remains. What are you still able to do, and be? A great deal depends on how central what you lost is to who you are.
Perhaps you lost your most intimate partner. Do you still have the desire for intimacy, and the capacity to build an intimate relationship? If so, you can begin connecting, sharing, getting to know and be known by others – not to replace the partner, but to reestablish yourself as a possible intimate partner. Or do you see that lost partner as your one true love, after whom nobody else could possibly be acceptable, or that intimacy as a mysterious gift bestowed on you by your partner, which you had no part in creating? Then you must look to areas other than intimacy.
Perhaps you lost your place in a crucial community: They no longer accept or acknowledge you, or you can no longer fully engage with them as you did before. Perhaps they are still there, and welcoming, but it’s just not the same any longer: Your world has changed, and theirs has not. Seek another community of people who do share your world, perhaps people who have survived what you have survived – not to endlessly rehash the Event, but to be able to interact with people who get it. They share this world, and that can make it progressively real for you.
Athletes who have lost limbs famously can regain a great deal of behavior potential by competing in their sport in a context that fits their ability, or by switching sports from something they can’t do to something they can. There is nothing to do about the lost dreams: You won’t be a lottery pick in the NBA, you won’t cross the finish line first at the Olympics, you won’t pitch the last game in the College World Series. But once you have mourned and accepted the loss of those dreams, you have space for others, which you can pursue eventually with equal passion and satisfaction.
Can you come “all the way back?” Many do, some can’t and some come back, by their own reckoning, better that before. It’s hard to know in advance how any individual will fare with major reconstruction of their world, but one thing is clear: People are built for this. We reconstruct our worlds all the time, usually in minor ways, but almost everyone is challenged by a radically changed world sometime in their lives. It’s in our essential competence as persons.
Of course all this is easy to say, but when you’ve just seen your world blown apart it’s not so easy to do, especially if you try to go it alone. Help from someone else – a compassionate friend or spouse, a counselor or therapist, a mentor or group of fellow survivors – can make the crucial difference in finding your way forward. And when the survivor is a child, we are all moved to help. But again, how? How can we be useful in helping another person – child or not – reconstruct their world?
We will look at that in Part III.