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Making Sense of the Senseless

How can we make sense out of tragedy, trauma, and loss? How do we move forward in the face of unthinkable events?

Coping with tragedy, trauma, and loss

It’s Memorial Day in the U.S., which is celebrated with 3 day weekends, BBQs, and the opening of swimming pools. The true meaning of the holiday, however, is much more somber. It’s a day dedicated to remembering those who died during military service, for honoring their sacrifice and that of their loved ones. For me, personally, it marks the anniversary of my brother’s unexpected death 11 years ago. This year, in the wake of events centering on violence in schools and in my neighborhood, it feels particularly heavy, weighted by the unnecessary loss of life and those who must carry on with broken hearts. 

I intended to write this week about supporting someone with mental health issues to close out Mental Health Awareness month. That’s a worthwhile topic, and one the Peak Mind community asked for. I just can’t bring myself to do it, though, given everything else. 

Instead, I find myself thinking about how we make sense out of tragedy, trauma, and loss. How do we move forward in the face of unthinkable events?

I don’t have the answers for addressing the systemic issues that lead to such horrific tragedies as war and school shootings. I don’t even have all of the answers for how to cope with the fallout of these events or the loss of a loved one or the myriad other bad things that can leave scars on our lives. I do, however, have a knowledge base that sheds some insights, and I’m willing to share some of my own experiences on the off-chance that it helps someone find hope in the darkness. 

Understanding what causes tragedy and trauma

It’s human nature to want the world to make sense. We like nice, neat explanations for events, and we want our cause-and-effect to be linear and straight forward. We like to think that good things happen to good people and that people who do bad things are evil. We like to think that it won’t happen to us and that there is always a clear, easy to understand reason why things happen.

We like to think the world is just and logical. Unfortunately, it isn’t.

When things happen that violate our idea of how the world works, our foundation gets shaken. We desperately need things to make sense again.  

In the aftermath of tragedy, our minds look for an explanation. They want to assign blame. If we can finger point to something that is clearly at fault, better yet if that some one or some thing is evil or greedy or broken or flawed, it restores our sense of balance. It rights the topsy turviness that happened in our worlds. 

The issue is that it may not be that simple. 

The assumptions we make about who is to blame may be faulty or myopic. They may not take into account all of the possible contributing factors. As tempting as it might be to put all of the blame on one person (or group) or one factor, my experience is that it’s rarely that simple. 

We need to understand what happened in a way that allows us to move forward. That likely means that we must expand our thinking and question our assumptions. We must side-step faulty logic that leads to inaccurate or unhelpful conclusions. We must be intentional about meaning making because the story we tell ourselves about what happened, why it happened, and what it means about us, others, and the future will greatly shape our path.  

It’s not black or white

There is a kind of therapy called DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy) that is based on the concept of dialectics, which are two opposing things that are both true.

Dialectics are hard for our minds to navigate because they seem contradictory. Logic holds that if one is true then the other is not. Yet, they both are. The challenge is to simultaneously hold these contradictions and seek the broader truth, the one in which they both exist. We must resist the urge to throw one out in the interest of simplicity. We must resist the EITHER OR and embrace the BOTH AND mentality instead. 

Today, I am embracing the dialectics. I find myself torn between seeing the world as utterly f*ed and seeing the incredible opportunities ahead, between being angered, disgusted, and devastated by the realities that our world is terrible and simultaneously awed and grateful for the wonder of that same reality.

Bad things happen to good people AND there is justice.

People are suffering AND there is beauty in the world.

We are on opposing sides AND we can collaborate.

I will never be the same AND I will find a way to have joy again.

Feel your feelings

It’s normal to feel a range of emotions following a foundation-shaking experience. We may feel sad, angry, guilty, anxious, confused, disgusted, and/or dozens of other ways. We may feel like we are going to be crushed by our pain or feel a strong urge to numb. As difficult as it may be, we must feel our feelings but not wallow in them. We must make space for them but not be buried by them. We will not be able to heal otherwise.

I remember walking in the hospital parking lot with my dad while my brother was on life support. “Do you want a xanax?” he asked me. “No,” I told him. “This is supposed to hurt.” 

I’m not a masochist, but I am a psychologist. I had spent years at that point teaching people how important it is to experience rather than avoid even the most difficult, painful emotions. I am not judging my father for needing a xanax in that moment. I have no idea the magnitude of a parent’s pain in the face of losing a child. I’m not a parent myself. All I know is that I viewed my pain as important. It signaled to me how much I loved my brother and how much my world was being devastated. And in that moment, I had the capacity to hold my pain and weather the storm. In the moments since, I have continued to embrace the pain when it arises, to acknowledge that love and pain are two sides of the same coin, and to use that pain to fuel some of my actions and efforts. 

In the face of personal or collective tragedy, it is important that we feel our emotions, that we heed their message, and that we consider what they are directing us to do. Perhaps that means finding a way to honor our lost loved ones, finding a way to take meaningful action to affect real change, or finding the courage to experience joy again even with the heartache.

Wise mind

One of the concepts I appreciate from DBT is called Wise Mind, which is the overlap of logic and emotions. When we operate from Wise Mind, we acknowledge and feel our feelings but are not ruled by them, and we listen to and are guided by logic but are not irrational, cold, or devoid of feeling. Finding this place of inner wisdom in the aftermath of tragedy or loss is important. Feel your feelings and take their message. Challenge your assumptions and faulty logic, but do let reason guide you. Take your next step with your head AND your heart. 

The choice point

Victor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, wrote a famous book called Man’s Search for Meaning. In it, he says “Between every stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

Modern day psychologists often refer to this as the Choice Point. This is the fork in the road. We do not necessarily get to choose what happens to or around us, but we do get to choose what we do in the face of it. We get to choose who and how we want to be. We may not get to choose what we feel, but we can choose to feel it. We may not have the power to affect the change we want to see in our world, but we can decide to point fingers and play the blame game or we can take meaningful action. We can choose to go down the path of nihilistic despair or the one of growth and strength, if only we have the courage. We can channel our pain into a life that is worth living, even in a world that doesn’t make sense

“Between every stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
Victor Frankl
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What Do Grammar and Math Have to Do with Acceptance of Pain?

What do grammar and math have to do with mindset and pain? More than you might think!
There’s an old Buddhist saying: “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” Once you learn this, your quality of life will greatly improve. 
If you’ve ever heard me speak, or even had a conversation with me, you’ve probably heard me say, “Just because life gives you a cactus, doesn’t mean you have to sit on it.” Roughly speaking, don’t do things that cause yourself to suffer. Instead of touching the cactus, admire it. Let it bring you joy, not pain. 
I’m not ashamed to admit that I got that pearl of wisdom from a meme on Facebook. In fact, it’s probably the best thing I’ve ever gotten from social media.
Why is that?
Because that saying so beautifully illustrates a critical math problem for life:
Pain + non-acceptance = suffering
This is something they don’t teach you in school. This equation does a great job encompassing one of the hardest lessons to learn. We often have little choice or control when it comes to pain. Physical pain, emotional pain, psychological pain. It doesn’t matter. It’s all pain, and pain is an unavoidable part of life. 
Take this pandemic as a salient example. There are so many pain points for so many people, and pretending like that pain doesn’t exist or trying to “just be positive” the pain away really isn’t helpful.
What is the solution, then? Acceptance. 

Acceptance

In psychology, acceptance is really captured by the cliche, “It is what it is” sentiment. Acceptance doesn’t mean liking it or approving of it or wanting it. Acceptance means acknowledging things as they really are and not allowing pain to dictate your actions in unhelpful ways.
Now, this is where the grammar lesson comes in. Acceptance can be hard to wrap your head around and even more difficult, yet, to embody and implement. What you can do right now to start toward a place of acceptance, though, is to insert the mental period.

The Mental Period

I was talking with colleagues from the anxiety world last night, and one shared this cartoon that so perfectly exemplifies the mental period.
 
When you experience a pain point, notice it. Acknowledge it. Then insert the mental period. This helps solve the problem of dwelling which only causes more pain. 
“It’s raining.” PERIOD.
“My head hurts.” PERIOD.
“I’m scared.” PERIOD.
“I’m feeling burned out.” PERIOD.
“I’m feeling bored.” PERIOD.
“People are losing their jobs and their loved ones.” PERIOD.
“I feel heart broken.” PERIOD. 
“And I’m grateful.” PERIOD.
See how that works? Give it a try this week and see if this is a more helpful way of dealing with pain, whatever form it takes.
This does not mean be complacent. However, cognitive behavior therapy to refocus your mind does so much for your acceptance of pain to mitigate suffering. 
And if you want more tips and tools for building acceptance skills and other aspects of psychological strength, our ASCEND program is for you. There’s a whole section on acceptance and other tools for taming your mind, in addition to modules on becoming the best version of you and creating a life you love. 
 
“Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.”
 – Dalai Lama