One of my husband’s “ah-ha” moments came in his early adulthood when he caught a snippet of an Oprah show. The guests that day were two brothers who had endured horrific abuse during their childhoods. One became the epitome of success, applying discipline and intentional effort to all areas of his life, which resulted in a fulfilling career and marriage. The other turned to drugs and crime to fuel his addictions. By all measures, his life was tragic and wasted.
Oprah asked each brother in turn, “Why did you make the decisions that you did?”
Both brothers answered the same, “I had no choice.”
But that’s not really true, is it? They had no choice, no agency, when it came to the abuse they suffered. The damage caused was real and significant for both of the men. Yet as they left childhood and began to make their own lives, they did have a choice –
They could allow what happened to become a limitation, using the damage as an excuse to whither and self-destruct.
Or, they could choose to view the traumatic childhood as a trial, a training ground to learn how to avoid falling into those same unhealthy patterns and instead, grow from the experience.
I highly doubt that even the successful brother looks back upon his childhood with fondness. I suspect that even while he attributes some of his fortitude and wisdom to the abuse he suffered, he still would not excuse the actions of his parents or wish the same on others. However, he probably understands that good things can come from bad situations and that, while he was helpless as a child, he is not helpless now.
I think sometimes we conflate growing from trauma with excusing the trauma. As though by finding positive change we are discounting the impact of whatever happened to us. It can be challenging to hold both things true at once – it was horrible and yet it also provides opportunity for growth – yet that is so often the case. Using trauma as a springboard for positive change doesn’t mean the actions that hurt you are okay; it means that you are determined to be okay despite the actions.
Nobody would ever choose trauma as a mechanism for growth. We all would prefer to learn to swim under the patient and kind tutelage of a coach, yet sometimes the tsunami forces us to learn before we are ready. We can allow ourselves to go under, cursing the relentless wave, or we can use it an opportunity to learn how to paddle like hell in order to keep our heads above water.
You DO have a choice.
You cannot change what happened.
But you can change how you view it.
Is it going to drown you or train you?