Updated: Mar 2, 2021
By Holly Lynn Payne
This is the first part in a three part series on Designing Our Way Through Crisis.
Almost one year into the pandemic, our world is still deeply hurting. While the promise of a vaccine elevates our hope, we cannot deny the losses we will carry into the future. Our collective grief is a remainder—and a reminder—of what we have all lost and survived.
Our future will not exist without this trauma imprinting our lives forever. And yet, for many there is something palpable we cannot name, but sense is emerging. It is even feasible to say, looking back, that this crisis was not a curse after all but has offered many opportunities.
Crisis is designed to help us change what no longer serves us and it pushes us to grow. The Greek word for crisis is krisis and krino, which means separation. Sue Monk Kidd points out in her book, When The Heart Waits, that ‘crisis’ is written with two characters in Chinese, the top meaning danger, the bottom meaning opportunity. Perhaps the key to navigating a crisis is to see and seize the opportunity within it—not despite the pain, but because of it. With this, crisis becomes a mechanism with a positive forcing function.
The pain of crisis, I realized, was not a punishment but a powerful tool for transformation.
Seed of Growth
I know this because I have lived it. As a survivor of multiple traumas, including a drunk driver who left me unable to walk for almost a year, I discovered that crisis is the seed of growth. I learned that the pain of divorce, deaths, and illnesses were designed to help me realign my life. The pain of crisis, I realized, was not a punishment but a powerful tool for transformation.
We have seen opportunity arise from the pandemic as we all scrambled to adjust—almost overnight—to upheaval. While the media focused on the deleterious effects of Covid, there were many already choosing to create positive and, for some, permanent change. But this choice to create—in the midst of crisis—requires a kind of thinking that is not always obvious.
But this choice to create—in the midst of crisis—requires a kind of thinking that is not always obvious.
Experiencing positive change as a result of crisis is the definition of posttraumatic growth, as studied by researchers, social workers, psychologists, counselors and scholars. While many people will be affected by PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder), there is scientific evidence that our healing can co-exist with the five aspects of posttraumatic growth: finding strength, gaining appreciation, forming deep relationships, discovering more meaning in life, and seeing new possibilities. By choosing these five responses, we can design a way through crises.
One of the greatest ironies of a crisis is that while we can feel weak and exhausted, we can also experience resilience when our worlds feel like they are being destroyed. Somehow, we are able to get up, get dressed and function in a coherent way to get through another day when our hearts are blown apart and our anxieties reign supreme. But it is because of the weight and stress of crisis, that we realize how much load bearing we can actually take.
Emmy award-winning journalist and author, Allison Gilbert, has been a prominent voice on dealing with loss and building resilience for decades. After losing both parents, her mother when she was 25 and her father, six years later, Gilbert found herself as a young parent without parents at 31. Faced with the daunting task of raising her children without the presence of their grandparents, she created a way to honor them by making remembering them a ritual as taught in her book Passed and Present: Keeping Memories of Loved Ones Alive.
In a recent interview, Gilbert discussed how she found strength when the loss and grief were so fresh and raw. “In the beginning, I got used to the status of passively receiving support. But I had to transition from passive mourning to active remembering,” she said.
In a time where there have been close to 500,000 deaths in our country, many will face this same transition. “No one was going to do the work of remembering my parents except me,” Gilbert said. “Even a year after a loss, or even six months, people don’t know how to remember your loved ones. But keeping traditions alive, deciding what to do with their belongings— that’s the work of the one who is most deeply impacted by death. It made me realize that to move forward, I had to shift my thinking in order to heal myself.”
Choosing to be pro-active in one’s own healing is an integral part of posttraumatic growth.
This self-aware thinking is a critical factor in building strength. Developing a sense of agency put Gilbert on a path of feeling more in control, and how she found strength to move forward.
“One of the most powerful things you can do when you feel out of control is to do the things that make you feel in control. That’s the distinction. When you pivot to active remembering, you’re choosing to be pro-active. This is the lesson,” Gilbert said.
This choice is not a way to avoid pain, but it does help to channel it. And choosing to be pro-active in one’s own healing is an integral part of posttraumatic growth.
Wired for Resilience
Two years after my divorce when my daughter was just shy of five, my best friend’s only child was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. We buried her on her third birthday six months later. I have a video of her doing a cartwheel in a park near the hospital, while her daughter watched on the lawn, giggling with a picc-line. How could my best friend have the capacity to experience joy while her daughter was dying on the grass? How was this even possible?
I stumbled upon the concept of posttraumatic growth reading Option B, Sheryl Sandberg’s book about what she learned about her capacity to survive after losing her husband. I realized that what I witnessed in my best friend, and what I experienced during and after my traumas, was actually scientifically studied as the phenomena of posttraumatic growth.
Author of multiple backpacking books and most recently, It Happened Like This, Adrienne Hall Lindholm, describes her journey into living life in Alaska, her encounters with the wilderness and her battle with miscarriages until her daughter Avery was born. It was this child who received the diagnosis of a brain tumor. It was this young life that ended at age three.
Strength in Nature
Lindholm looked to the natural world to find her way out of her worst nightmare and depression. While people looked at her as strong in the midst of this tragedy, she said she was a “disaster” in a recent interview. “People were confusing strength with the act of surviving. You can go through something so traumatic, but you do survive,” she said. “Unless your lungs stop or your heart stops, you will get through because we’re wired to be resilient—and choose life and living, even in the darkest moments.”
The real strength came from her critical thinking skills when her daughter was first diagnosed. While she and her husband spent 29 days in the ICU, she questioned the doctors about her daughter’s care and prognosis. “Having an awareness is important. Quality of life is more important than living long,” she said, though her questions were not well taken. She was told by a nurse, “Most of the parents don’t ask questions,” but it was this curiosity and willingness to choose the best path for her daughter’s final days that led her to recover after her death.
“The first step was to cultivate a sense of wonder and curiosity again. Curiosity was my ticket to living again. A lot of it had to do with wilderness and nature and using travel as a way to be interested in life."
Pitted with grief, Lindholm turned to nature to find her way. “The first step was to cultivate a sense of wonder and curiosity again. Curiosity was my ticket to living again. A lot of it had to do with wilderness and nature and using travel as a way to be interested in life. To travel to the desert and allow myself to be awed by the darkest, starry night. To feel that sense of wonder again. I needed a reason to live. It was that combination of experiences in nature that grabbed me and said, Look at this. Look at the way the light is bouncing off this creek. I found a way to be amazed by the world again.”
Lindholm and Gilbert’s stories demonstrate the profound co-existence of finding strength in the midst of devastation. That in fact, crises led them both to expand their lives: Gilbert to devote her entire profession to writing about and helping people deal with loss, and Lindholm to adopting two infants in her mid-life and re-creating her family. Yes, the pandemic has taken so much from us, but it is also giving us opportunities to see how strong we are, to choose strength when we are at our weakest, and to know we can be amazed by the world again.
Holly Payne is an award-winning novelist, writing coach and the CEO & Founder of Booxby, an AI platform helping content creators succeed. She lives in the Bay Area with her daughter and is an avid cyclist, skier and very recently, smitten with surfing.