Turning Distress Into Joy

Part I: Forgiveness

On the night of January 21, 1995, Azim Khamisa’s life changed forever.  While delivering pizza, his 20-year-old son, Tariq Khamisa, was shot and killed by Tony Hicks, a 14-year-old gang member.  Set to be married to his girlfriend, Tariq would never see his wedding day.  Neither would his father.  Days and months went by, and Azim struggled to get out of bed, to even take the simplest steps towards the next day.  But as life dragged on, Azim began to sense that something extraordinary would have to occur in order for him to survive, and thrive again.  He would have to forgive his son’s killer.

As described in the CBS interview, Azim felt he needed to take some responsibility for the tragic death of his own son. He started by forgiving Tony Hick’s family, and eventually forged a friendship with his guardian and grandfather, Ples Felix.  He then founded the Tariq Khamisa Foundation (TKF) in honor of his son, with the purpose of reducing youth violence by reaching students at various ages. Founded on six key tenets, the Foundation, which provides services and mentorship to over 20,000 students annually, begins with the idea that “Violence is real and hurts us all” and ends with the belief “From conflict, love and unity are possible.” But Azim’s story did not end there. Five years after his son’s life was ended by an arbitrary bullet, Azim stared into eyes of his murderer. He saw himself. Then, he forgave Tony, and offered him a job at his Foundation if and when he would be released from prison. Tony is up for parole in 2027.

All of us hope that we never are asked to face the reality that Azim was forced to confront. Most of us struggle to understand how we could find the resolve to forgive someone in the way that he did. But none of us have the luxury of not being hurt by others, in the infinite number of ways this can occur. Over the past 20 years, the time-honored virtue of forgiveness has been subjected to a huge scientific inquiry. A simple PsycINFO search of “forgiveness” uncovers almost 3,000 citations regarding a deeper review into what has become accepted as an effective therapeutic technique for traumatic experiences, whether it be chronic child abuse, random acts of violence, or institutional warfare. Forgiveness has consistently been shown to be associated with better psychological and physical health (Worthington et al., 2007). Large scales have shown that forgiving others is associated with less anxiety, depressive symptoms, and perceived stress (Lundahl et al., 2008).

But the models of forgiveness differ, and the misconceptions abound although some, some like Mr. Khamisa, take particularly exceptional steps to move forward. As C.S. Lewis once said,

…forgiving does not mean excusing. Many people seem to think it does. They think that if you ask them to forgive someone who has cheated or bullied them you are trying to make out that there was really no cheating or no bullying. But if that were so, there would be nothing to forgive. They keep on replying, “But I tell you the man broke a most solemn promise.” Exactly: that is precisely what you have to forgive. (This doesn’t mean that you must necessarily believe his next promise. It does mean that you must make every effort to kill every taste of resentment in your own heart—every wish to humiliate or hurt him or to pay him out.)

Interestingly, too, forgiveness is often more of an intrapersonal process, than an interpersonal one. In a study looking at small sample of individuals from Western Australia exposed to severe trauma, one theme kept coming through as with other research. Participants reported that forgiveness had much more to do with themselves than the offender. In reconciling what had occurred, and in releasing much of the guilt and pain and anger that they held so close, there was a sense of “letting go” that allowed for the possibility that tomorrow just might be different, and even better, than today. (Field, et al., 2013) But in order for this to happen, it seemed there must be an awareness of just how the circumstances, and their subsequent reaction, had changed the course of their lives. In doing so, many experienced a new perspective of the offender (not necessarily to be confused with unconditional positive regard), one less jaded with attributions of absolute evil, but more colored with the imperfections that existed within all humanity, including themselves.

But for some, like Mr. Khamisa, this process leads to what is termed “interpersonal reconciliation sentiment” (IPS) and unconditional forgiveness. IPS is defined as “…the personal, intimate feeling of being reconciled, at least to a certain level, with the people who have severely harmed you” expressed into “the resumption of some amount of trust and collaboration.” Research (e.g., Mukeshema, 2013) into those affected in the 1994 Rwandan genocide found that most of the perpetrators of violence did not apologize, and yet people were left to find a way to move forward in the midst of the disharmony that abounded. Findings indicated it was not only necessary for personal growth, but also critical for societal well-being, and rebuilding, as a whole. As Nelson Mandela stated on his inauguration day, after 27 years in prison, “The time for the healing of the wounds has come. The moment to bridge the chasms that divide us has come. The time to build is upon us.”

Regardless of the path taken, though, it appears that the necessity of forgiveness is born of a few different dimensions. One is what I will call personal and political effectiveness. It is clear that while rage and distrust can spawn awareness and discussions of misdoings and maltreatment, it cannot sustain a unitive, long-standing movement towards a larger goal of recognizing just how seven billion, imperfect human beings could co-exist in an authentic, yet peaceful way. Those who never find ways to reconcile with imperfect manifestation of others, and instead focus on the failures that may arise, will struggle mightily to move beyond their own constituency of bitterness. Reiterating Lewis, forgiveness does not mean excusing or forgetting, especially as we go in search of a better way. But it does mean acknowledging—of which we are flawed, of which we are failed, of which we are all in need of mercy.

Forgiveness also breeds from a deeper understanding, that being that our life may not be what we expected, or even desired. As Mr. Khamisa must have felt he was posed the very unfair question, “Do I choose my pride, or do I chose my life, just not as I would have had it?” It seems very doubtful that even in the midst of his forgiveness, he still does not experience periodic spikes of anger, and of loss—for he did lose his son. But as with every great heroic act, forgiveness requires daily, willful acts and reminders that I am opening myself to a different pathway, which is especially difficult when the reminders of transgressions remain palpable, such as ongoing physical issues that stem from an offense. For many, this is partly why forgiveness and faith are intertwined so tightly, as there is an acceptance that my life is not my own while I strive to live in communion with others. But my life is one that I choose to open myself to each day, and not allow the walls within to close ever more tightly when suffering presents itself. Ironically, although the intrapersonal model suggests forgiveness is self-serving, others left in our “distraught wake” may suggest that in serving ourselves, we are serving others in a much better way.

The human condition is both incredibly unique and yet so much the same. Our experiences are as vast as the oceans and as similar as the atoms that comprise them. Our calls range from the most secluded of hermits to the most exposed of world leaders. But we are all faced with betrayal and disappointment. We are all faced with each other. And if we choose to take on what life has given us, and open ourselves to others, then it sure seems we have an implicit understanding that we must forgive. This past year, I attended a wedding in which the groom and his only brother were estranged over what seemed to be a minor issue. His brother did not show for the ceremony. Although I knew little of the details, I was greatly saddened that two raised so closely could move so far away, and forego one of, if not the, most important day of their lives. It seems that a long road of forgiveness must ensue if the bonds of their brotherhood will resume, and they live to teach their children how to love again. So it seems for us, too.

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Field, C, Zander, J., & Hall, G (2013). ‘Forgiveness is a present to yourself as well’: An intrapersonal model of forgiveness in victims of violent crime.  International Review of Victimology, 19, 235-247.

Lundahl BW, Taylor MJ, Stevenson R and Roberts KD (2008) Process-based forgiveness             interventions: A meta-analytic review. Research on Social Work Practice 18(5): 465–478.

Mukashema, I, & Mullet, E (2013). Unconditional forgiveness, reconciliation sentiment, and mental       health among victims of genocide in Rwanda. Social Indicators Research, 113, 121–132.

Worthington, E. L., Jr, Witvliet, C. V. O., Pietrini, P., & Miller, A. J. (2007). Forgiveness, health, and well-being: A review of evidence for emotional versus decisional forgiveness, dispositional forgivingness, and reduced unforgiveness. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 30, 291–302.

Part II: Channeling

“A fine line separates our angels from our demons.” – Shane Neimeyer

Shane Neimeyer had just tried to hang himself. It, too, had failed. Like much of his life to that point, which had been spent in and out of state custody since his adolescent years, his road had hit a dead end. But in the depths of his despair, thoughts of a different kind surfaced, with one idea in mind: Ironman. Sitting in his straight jacket, awaiting sentencing as a homeless heroin addict, he had turned the pages of an endurance magazine to pass the time. As he began to read more about triathlons, there was something about the discipline, the drive, the pursuit of a difficult goal, which began to consume him. The thought entered his mind. Maybe he could be one of them. Maybe his life could change forever.

His troubles began as a teen in Central Illinois. By the time he was 18, he had already been arrested for theft, burglary, and driving under the influence. After skipping out on college at Colorado State University, his drug addiction only worsened as he found himself on the streets of Boise, Idaho. By the time all of his sentencing was over, he would land in jail 25 times. He began exercising intensively during his stays, often running laps around the small courtyard. In 2005, he placed 50th overall in his first half Ironman held in Bend, Oregon with a time of 5 hours, 8 minutes. In 2010, he landed himself in the granddaddy of all triathlons, the World Championships in Kona. It was the year he finally said goodbye to official state supervision of any kind.

Today, Shane is a strength and conditioning coach in Boulder, Colorado. He has now done eight full Ironman triathlons, and continues to train intensively. In talking about his life, he often discusses how the “neurotic, excessive personality traits” that fueled drug addiction and a life of high-risk crime are the same kind that enabled him, like others, to become an elite athlete.   Although he acknowledges that he still thinks about his former life, he credits his dramatic change to triathlons. As he said, “Triathlons gave me what I desperately needed: a purpose.”

Beneath each purpose that propels our lives, we are driven by a daily source of energy that is difficult to define, but impossible to ignore. Bred of genetic underpinnings, individual experiences, immediate surroundings, collective culture, and other influences, this unique energy begins to manifest itself early in our lives. Expressed as desires, urges, compulsions, curiosities, drives, interests, or any other given name, this energy gradually becomes known as part of our personality. In actuality, it is a dynamic, daily interplay of what I simply will call drives (for ease of communication) that is an ever-evolving, unique sense of self that interfaces with the world we live. Often, our varied drives are easily satisfied in ways that are considered acceptable by us and others. Sometimes they are not. When a particular drive reveals itself within us that can result in negative consequences, like in Shane’s situation, we find ourselves a serious quandary. Although directions from caregivers or peers may be to simply squelch the desire, this may not work. If not, we are left with two primary options, although these are not always consciously chosen. The first is to continue with similar behaviors as before, and accept the possible consequences as Shane did with his drug use and criminal activity. The second is to find a more acceptable outlet for the particular energies that exist. This is where channeling becomes crucial.

Channeling as used here is defined “a way, course, or direction of thought or action” as in “new channels of exploration”. It is the process by which we define novel pathways and new outlets for a specific drive or state that may otherwise be undesirable.  Although channeling could technically occur in a negative way, the focus here is on using energy in a positive, productive manner.

In some ways, we do this every day probably without even realizing it. If we are feeling stressed after work, we may channel this into a run.  If we are worried about an upcoming event and can’t sleep, we may get out of bed and clean.  We might use a journal entry to create a narrative to channel our sadness.  We might mow the yard to harness the “edge” we feel after a long day at work.  But, for more chronic states of drive that can cause us or others harm or disruption, it is critically important to figure out a way to transform this energy in a way that will do good, or at least, not wrong.  In some ways, channeling is closely related, but not synonymous with sublimation.  Although sublimation is often associated with a psychoanalytic perspective, the broader meaning of the term is “to divert the expression of (an instinctual desire or impulse) from its unacceptable form to one that is considered more socially or culturally acceptable.” It applies to any drive that may consume or divert us to behaviors that contradict our particular values or calls.  In Shane’s case, he literally created a new pathway, a new life from the same drives and compulsions that almost destroyed him.  The drive never left, but the way in which he satisfied the drive changed dramatically.

One way in which this can be important for some is in regards to hostility and aggressive behavior.  Hostility has long been shown to be associated with negative health outcomes, including heart disease (Smith, 1992). Some research (Frost, 2007) has indicated that we can channel aggressive or hostile impulses.  But, it appears that our ability to do this is affected by our conscious beliefs about how aggressive we perceive ourselves to be, and our implicit acceptance of rationales for a particular aggressive act.  In other words, if we believe we are an aggressive, hostile person, and rationalize why another person or entity deserves our hostility or violent behavior, we are less likely to channel these behaviors to more acceptable, and at times, useful alternatives.  Therefore, in order to channel aggression, we must first address the beliefs and assumptions that we hold about ourselves and others.  As with forgiveness, channeling does not mean that we forego a courageous, and at times, militant pathway toward undoing wrongs being done.  But it does mean we attempt to harness this energy in a way that is productive, not destructive, in a manner we do not intend.

This seems very much what John Walsh did, after the brutal murder of his six-year-old son, Adam. He went from building luxury hotels to a lifetime of anti-crime activism.  Although not without his own controversy, it appears that he channeled his rage towards a murderer never convicted (the alleged killer died in prison on a life sentence for other crimes before going to trial) in trying to help others avoid a similar fate.  His ability to channel his anger productively was a key in aiding justice for many people.

Another form of channeling is also used to treat tics in children and adults in the empirically-supported method of habit reversal training (HRT). Once a person recognizes a premonitory urge that immediately precedes the tic, they are taught how to channel this involuntary urge into a voluntary behavior that closely resembles the original tic, but draws less attention from others.  For example, a tic that involves shaking the head side-to-side repeatedly may be replaced with tensing the neck in place, and pushing the chin towards the chest while deep breathing.  Gradually, these behaviors are often shaped into other actions that become manageable and less frequent.

Over the past few decades, studies have increasingly shown just how predictive self-control in youth is when it comes to almost any important outcome as adults. Studies have also shown that self-control, unlike intelligence and other factors, is very malleable and sustaining.  With our own kids, my wife and I try to teach awareness and self-discipline daily.  But as I watch them grow, and I see the various drives and urges spring forth, I am become increasingly convinced that the formation of self-control and self-channeling are, and must be, intertwined.  Whereas one may sit through a church service without much challenge, another one really struggles to inhibit the instinctive urges that come with an hour in the pews.  Simply rehashing the same old redirections about willpower or consequences may not be enough, for them or for us.  We must get creative and persistent, in teaching a skill, however challenging it is now, that could spawn a lifetime of promise.  No matter the age or circumstance, like Shane, it is never too late to channel our drives in a manner that not only benefits us, but also others as well.  In doing so, we may do much more than avoid potential negative outcomes.  We may begin thrive in ways we would have never dreamed even if life gets really trying.

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Frost, B., Implicit and explicit personality: A test of a channeling hypothesis for aggressive behaviorJournal of Applied Psychology, 92, 1299–1319.

Smith, T. W. (1992). Hostility and Health: Current Status of a Psychosomatic Hypothesis. Health Psychology, 11, 139–150.

Part III: Helping Others

Research on volunteering has long found that those who help others have better physical health and psychological adjustment.  And it’s not just that healthy individuals seek out ways to help others more; it is that in helping others that we reap the benefits of better well-being, too.  Not only do we feel better but, for youth especially, there is a decrease in risk-taking behaviors, and more prosocial actions, especially with those outside of their family.  But why is this the case?

One, it appears that volunteering and helping behaviors result in eudaimonic [yoo-dey-mon-ik] well-being, which should be distinguished from hedonic well-being. Hedonic well-being suggests that happiness and contentment comes from seeking out pleasurable activities (and avoiding pain), such as eating something sweet or winning a prize. In contrast, eudaimonic well-being is rooted in the belief that happiness comes from participating in activities that involve a deeper purpose or meaning. Hedonic activities can lead us to feel good, but only eudaimonic activities, such as volunteering, can lead us to feel good about ourselves. This is the essence of eudaimonic well-being. Actions focused on helping others or our world help us feel that we matter.

The concept of mattering was introduced in 1981 by Morris Rosenberg and Claire McCullough. They defined it as the perception that we are a significant part of the world around us—that people notice us, care that we exist, and value who we are. Multiple studies indicate that mattering plays a key role in why helping others leads to better well-being.  When we feel valued and needed by other people, we feel better about ourselves.

Findings also indicate that those who are least socially integrated end up benefitting the most from helping others. It appears that those who are isolated, have few close relationships, and struggle to be part of a social network are the very ones whose lives can be changed dramatically by giving their time for charitable causes. This is especially important for victims of abuse and maltreatment as many are left feeling disconnected and estranged from those around them.  In striving to regain a sense of interpersonal unity through layers of intense anxiety and insecurity, being a helper (in whatever capacity it may be) provides a universal opportunity for victims to bridge their vulnerability with that of others.  As Holly discovered, this moment of connection can spawn a new light of hope, a resurrected glimpse into a humanness that may have been long lost.

The process of helping others also brings stark reminders of just how resilient we can be. In their own bitter pain, helpers can come to know others whose stories seem as bad, or even worse, than their own.  And yet repeatedly, through tales of faith or persistence or survival, they are faced with victims that look less like victims, and more like warriors and transcenders.  An introspective process can ensue, challenging whether the helper’s victim status is quite as impenetrable as was previously believed.  Thoughts of resurgence seep in as an encounter with others in struggle challenges the helper to rewrite his or her tragic story into a revival.  A new will emerges.  A new love filters in.

Holly’s Story

She could hear a train rumbling through.  Lying on her stomach, all she could think about was staying alive.  Minutes earlier, she watched in horror as her boyfriend, Chris, was bludgeoned to death with a large rock.  She talked and pleaded with her captor, in hopes that her life would be spared.

The night had started out like any other in the town of Lexington, Kentucky.  Holly and Chris had left a party nearby to take walk on the tracks.  Little did they know that Angel Resendiz, later to be known as the “Railroad Killer,” had been watching them as they strolled along.  Suddenly, he appeared with a sharp weapon in hand.  He tied and gagged them, forcing them to the side of the tracks.  He seemed uninterested in money or other items they offered.

After being raped, the last thing she remembered was being hit repeatedly across the face with a wooden board.  She lost consciousness, and woke up in someone’s front yard.  She would become the only known survivor of Resendiz’s horrific killing spree.

After being treated at the hospital, she attempted to quickly return to her college life.  Few knew what had happened since her name was not reported due to fears her assailant would try to locate her.  By one year later, though, panic attacks increased and her grades were slipping.  Anxiety gripped her at any moment.

Although anxiety remained, she gradually took steps in reclaiming her life.  Along the way, she found that her deepest healing occurred in helping others traumatized by sexual abuse.  Armed with her own traumatic experience and a no-nonsense demeanor, she instantly connected with children and parents in the throes of deep distress.  She opened the nonprofit Holly’s House in her hometown of Evansville, Indiana, where victims of abuse could be interviewed in a safe, comfortable setting.

No one desires tragedies and despair.  But what if in our sorrow, we are given a unique chance to reach others seemingly unreachable, even if that be ourselves? In our lifetime, we may not always have a choice about to whom we matter. Those of whom we desire may reject us. Those of whom we tire may accept us. But we can always matter to someone.

For the complete discussion of the positive effects of volunteering, see the December 2012 edition of Just Thinking (www.stmarys.org/articles-1)

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Rosenberg, M., and McCullough, B. C. (1981). Mattering: Inferred significance and mental health.        Research in Community and Mental Health, 2, 163 – 182.

Piliavin, J.A., & Siegl, E. (2007).  Health benefits of volunteering in the Wisconsin longitudinal             study.  Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 48, 450-464.

Part IV: Gratitude

Tears were streaming down his mother’s face.  Just minutes earlier, he had unleashed a flurry of harsh statements and cursed at her as she stood their silently.  For months, John Foppe’s parents had tried to provide various options, and even personal encounters with others similar to him, to teach him how to do the basics.  Like dressing himself.  Or eating without assistance.  Or using the restroom on his own.  But over and over, John had refused to open himself to these possibilities, and was resigned to a life largely dependent on others.  His parents struggled with what to do next.  But, the night before, they had spoken with his brothers, and told them that they were no longer to help him unless told otherwise.  They had decided it was time that John started learning how to do these things on his own.  In a moment John later described as one of the most important in his life, his mother walked out of the room to leave him to put his clothes on.  He failed.  But, lying naked on the floor all alone, he suddenly “accepted that the miracle I had so desperately wanted wasn’t going to happen…I also came to the point at which I realized that my anger at God had brought me no relief, only further pain” (p. 46).

John Foppe had been born with no arms, among a number of other serious congenital abnormalities.  Doctors questioned whether he would survive at all.  In his deeply motivating book, “What’s Your Excuse?  Making the Most Out of What You Have,” John describes his life of growing up with no arms into one of full independence, and his feelings of stigmatization and isolation even in the midst of support from others.  In the depths of his struggle, John also notes evident gratitude in what most perceived as a very unfair situation.  He expresses his appreciation for moments of tough love, and for many people that were willing to help.  He speaks with graciousness for opportunities to take on new challenges, to experience natural surroundings, to know others more deeply.  But most of all, he illustrates how growing up with no arms offered him an unusual chance to discover a unique perspective, a unique calling that ultimately helped him overcome many fears and obstacles, not just the ones presented by his missing appendages.  What may sound really strange to some people is that John Foppe became thankful that he had no arms, even though much of life would have been easier with them.

Before we can really discuss what authentic gratitude is, though, it seems we address what gratitude is not.  Gratitude is not false positivity or the denial of negative emotions.  Gratitude is not condoning atrocities and maltreatment by others, even if an outcome might be good.  As was noted by Christina Enevoldsen in her blog, false gratitude can lead to negative outcomes that span generations. Being thankful also does not mean being tragically idealistic, or blind to obvious realities.  True gratitude does not encourage settling, or an erosion of high standards, even if struggles highlight meaningful moments and progress that may remain hidden to untrained eyes.

The word gratitude itself is derived from both the Latin word gratus, meaning pleasing, and grātitūdin- (stem of grātitūdō), indicating thankfulness.  It speaks to not only an act of graciousness, but also positive feelings originating from this deed.  Studies (Park, Peterson, and Seligman, 2005) have noted that it is endorsed as a universal character strength across countless cultures and creeds.  Research has also indicated that gratitude can have a number of significant, long-lasting positive effects on an individual (Emmons, 2013; Emmons, 2007).  In addition to physiological improvements, such as decreased blood pressure and improved immune function, gratitude has been consistently shown to improve social-emotional outcomes in the area of anxiety, depression, and substance use.  As a specific therapeutic technique, gratitude can be effective for multiple issues.  In one particular study, a gratitude intervention was compared to four other positive-based strategies to determine whether each would increase levels of happiness and reduce depressive symptoms (Seligman et al., 2005).  Participants were simply asked to write and deliver a letter to someone that they had never properly thanked.  Results indicated that in comparison to other experimental strategies (e.g., focused on using/identifying strengths, recognizing good things in life), the “gratitude visit” group showed far and away the biggest increase in happiness and decrease in depressive symptoms on the immediate post-test.  Evidence suggests, however, that repeated acts of gratitude are most likely to be associated with long-term benefits.  As I noted in a previous article, In Search of a Hundred Miles of Gratitude, it appears that the direct experience of gratitude, even fleeting, is incompatible with misery and distress. In giving thanks, we recognize a gain, no matter how small; at least for a moment, we let go of our sense of loss.

For those who have experienced significant trauma, gratitude interventions are gaining increasing recognition as effective means for progress.  Studies (e.g., Kashdan, Uswatte, and Jillian, 2006; Vernon, Dillon, and Steiner, 2009) have consistently found that PTSD levels are negatively correlated with post-trauma gratitude, independent of trauma severity, chronicity, and time elapsed since the traumatic event.  Gratitude not only provides intrapersonal benefits for the gracious person.  It also provides interpersonal connections for those who have been traumatized to maintain and expand their network of support.  As unfortunately happens, people suffering with significant psychological distress can “wear down” others through repeated solicitation of assistance and comfort.  Acts of gratitude provide a unique opportunity to repair these strained bonds.

In really understanding the essence of gratitude, it is important to recognize that gratitude extends much beyond a pleasing act of graciousness.  As eloquently described in the article, “Gratitude as a Psychotherapeutic Intervention” written by Robert Emmons and Robin Stern, gratitude is composed of two key components.  One, there is an assertion of “goodness” that exists in a person’s life.  But beyond this, there is a clear understanding that at least some of this goodness lies outside the individual.  For many, gratitude is not just a worldly transaction, but elemental of a transcendent link.  It exemplifies a sense that we are all part of a mysterious, interconnected, interdependent network.  As Emmons and Stern noted:

“True gratefulness rejoices in the other. Its ultimate goal is to reflect back the goodness that one has received by creatively seeking opportunities for giving. The motivation for doing so resides in the grateful appreciation that one has lived by the grace of others. In this sense, the spirituality of gratitude is opposed to a self-serving belief that one deserves or is entitled to the blessings that he or she enjoys.” (p. 847)

Some may question whether gratitude can be taught as a lifetime practice, or simply that it is acquired intrinsically or experientially in different ways.  KIPP, the Knowledge Is Power Program, is a national network of free, open-enrollment, college-preparatory public charter schools with a track record of preparing students in underserved communities for success in college and in life. There are currently 162 KIPP schools in 20 states and the District of Columbia serving more than 58,000 students. More than 88 percent of their students are from low-income families and eligible for the federal free or reduced-price meals program, and 95 percent are African American or Latino.  Many students have experienced (and continue to experience) significant trauma and discord in their families and neighborhoods.  Nationally, more than 93 percent of KIPP middle school students have graduated high school, and more than 82 percent of KIPP alumni have gone on to college. The program is largely founded on character building, which focuses on seven very predictive, highly researched traits:  zest, grit, self-control, optimism, social intelligence, curiosity, and gratitude.  What these educators found, as well as many others, is that traits such as gratitude can be taught, even to those who seem to have many reasons to not be thankful.   Qualities such as gratitude not only foster personal responsibility and achievement, but also teach youth that much of their success depends on the well-being of a larger team.

On Father’s Day 2010, our family set off on a morning bike ride.  What started out as a fun day turned into horror when our daughter plunged off a precipice after losing control on a local trail.  A rock crushed through her forehead just under the helmet.  When she stood up, we realized that a hole had opened into the inner covering of her brain.  I thought I might be saying goodbye.  But as I detailed in my book, many extraordinary things happened on her way to being blessed with an emergency craniotomy in the wee hours of the following day—her 4th birthday.  This morning, I walked by her room as she slept soundly after another frenetic day at the Schroeder household.  The seven titanium plates and the scars remain, although somewhat faded over the years.  I am reminded that she could easily have not been with us.  Yet I know we would have been asked to carry on, even joyously, without her.  Years removed from that Father’s Day morning, I am not grateful for the experience nor do I hope to ever encounter a similar one again.  But I am tremendously thankful for the insight and the gratitude it has provided.

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Emmons, R.A., & Stern, R. (2013).  Gratitude as a psychotherapeutic intervention.  Journal of Clinical Psychology:  In Session, 69, 846–855.

Emmons, R. A. (2013). Gratitude works! A twenty-one day program for creating emotional prosperity. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Emmons, R. A. (2007). Thanks! How the new science of gratitude can make you happier. New York, NY:  Houghton-Mifflin.

Kashdan, T.B., Uswatte, G., & Julian, T. (2006). Gratitude and hedonic and eudaimonic wellbeing in Vietnam war veterans. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 44, 177_199.

Park, N., Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2005). Character strengths in forty nations and fifty states. Unpublished manuscript, University of Rhode Island.

Seligman, M. E. P., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60, 410–421.

Vernon, L.L., Dillon, J.M., & Steiner, A.R.W. (2009).  Proactive coping, gratitude, and posttraumatic stress disorder in college women.  Anxiety, Stress, and Coping, 22, 117-127.

Part V and Final: Meaning & Transcendence

“It was not the dawn flooding the bay with splendor which woke Frederick…rather it was a gradual awareness of flaming words…all around him—living things that carried him down wide rivers and over mountains and across spreading plains. Then it was people who were with him—black men, very tall and big and strong.  They turned up rich earth as black as their broad backs; they hunted in forests; some of them were in cities, whole cities of black folks.  For they were free; they went wherever they wished; they worked as they planned.  They even flew like birds, high in the sky.  He was up there with them, looking down on earth which seemed so small.  He stretched his wings.  He was strong.  He could fly.  He could fly in a flock of people…”

Excerpt from There Was Once a Slave, by Shirley Graham

Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey (later known as Frederick Douglass) was born a slave circa 1818. After being separated from his mother as infant, and later from his grandmother, he was sent to live in a plantation nearby only to be eventually placed into servitude with the Auld family in Baltimore.  Despite a Maryland law prohibiting slaves from being taught to read, Frederick acquired early literary skills from a member of his master’s family.  But after acquiring further abilities and gaining recognition as a teacher himself, he was sent to local farmer who had the repute of being a “slave breaker.” Frederick barely survived one particular beating that left him bleeding and near death in the woods.  With the aid of two mysterious individuals, Frederick found himself in a moment of transcendence as described above, eventually on his way to freedom.  His life would become one of great meaning as social reformer, orator, writer, and leader of the movement to abolish slavery for good.

For all who suffer, like Mr. Douglass, meaning must first come through survival. But at some point, a question emerges about whether distress and misery mean more than the pain one feels.  An inquiry of transcendence appears.  In a study of those affected by severe childhood trauma (Skogrand et al., 2007), surviving is defined as “to continue to exist or simply to stay alive” (pg. 256).  For those who survive, they are able to find a way through each day that comes, but past trauma still exerts significant control over their life.  But with those who transcend, there is a sense of rising above the ordinary physical and psychological state.  Although traumatic experiences themselves may remain as definitive and directive circumstances in a person’s life, transcendence provides an escape to a more meaningful, and often joyful existence.

It appears that in the journey towards transcendence there first comes a growing awareness that something more exists beyond the palpable struggle. In the study mentioned above, awareness was generally followed by a sense of resiliency, of fighting back and persevering against the many restrictive forces, including self-blame.  As noted in a study of male survivors of childhood sexual abuse (Grossman, Sorsoli, & Kia-Keating, 2006), resiliency partially involves constructing a cognitive framework that makes sense of a traumatic past.  This may include a recognition of the perpetrator’s own struggles; it may be an acknowledgment that being mistreated does not mean the victim received “punishment” for being a bad person.  Gradually for many, acceptance of what has happened, and of roles that others may have played, seeps in.  At some point, opportunities for forgiveness emerge.  It seems the avenue of forgiveness then becomes directly tied to helping others, resulting in a posited “altruism born of suffering” (Staub & Vollhardt, 2008).  For many, this all leads to a greater sense of purpose and meaning, often through spiritual endeavors.

Although trends suggest stages towards transcendence, the reality is that “making meaning” of suffering runs a varied course. However, three themes (e.g., Grossman, Sorsoli, & Kia-Keating, 2006) seem to apply:  meaning through reason and understanding, meaning through action, and meaning through spirituality.  For those who find meaning through action, a “survivor mission” often involves creating purpose by channeling negative energy they feel into actions that matter, and can help save others from perpetration.  Some find meaning in slowly removing the intrapsychic barbs.  Some even find meaning in creative and artistic endeavors.

But is true meaning a fleeting, far-reaching reality? Some philosophers have suggested that few ever reach its promised shores; others believe it is essential even to survive. It seems this paradox cannot be. In a recent study (Heintzelman & King, 2014), two researchers from Missouri set out to address these two questions:  Is life truly meaningful at all, and if so, is it available to many or just a few?  Their extensive review and analysis suggested that life is, in fact, both very meaningful and ubiquitous at a high level.  And not just for those who superficially seem to have few struggles.  Polls taken by those hospitalized with alcoholism, in cocaine recovery programs, over the age of 85, and those critically ill all said the same thing:  life has great importance.

So if life is in fact so full of meaning, why is it that only a limited number of people indicate they are thriving in their daily lives? Studies (e.g., Keyes, 2002) have generally noted that less than 1 in 5 people in the United States report that they are flourishing.  More report that they are languishing or even worse.  It is understandable that many people struggle greatly due to adverse experiences. But often those with the worst experiences don’t report the most distress, and those with only minor difficulties seem to barely get by.

Beyond all other issues, three restraining personal factors repeatedly seem at play. One is the reality of self-blame, as contrasted with self-worth.  While the former is associated with a sense of unworthiness and helplessness, the latter speaks of an acute mindfulness of the value that each of us have.  Self-worth should not be confused with narcissism and/or inflated self-esteem. Narcissism involves the attribution that the individual alone is responsible for blessings granted and accolades attained.  Self-worth recognizes that much of what produces meaning and happiness is acquired from beyond.  Although we recognize that all of us commit mistakes and transgressions, the manifestation of self-worth invokes an understanding that each person is worth that of another, only expressed in a unique way.  A leader may influence by her life.  A helper may influence by his heart.  Sufferers can influence by their witness.  But all lives can have great meaning, much of which will always be beyond our poor powers to perceive.  So it seems the only thing more tragic than when people feel discarded by the world is when they are discarded by themselves.

These ideas form a converging point of trauma focused cognitive-behavioral therapy (TF-CBT). When creating painstaking narratives of a traumatic event(s), individuals come to understand how to disentangle deep-seeded beliefs of self-blame, and reframe these with realistic attributions and acknowledgements which stress that many factors associated with the trauma(s) were at play.  Trauma starts looking less like an affirmation of an individual’s self-loathing; it becomes more like an encounter(s) to be better understood and departed from.

Secondly, research has consistently found that attitudes must be accompanied by daily practices and environmental adjustments to provide a framework for a happier existence. The horrors of trauma must be directly, and repeatedly, contradicted by habits of contentment.  If anxiety-provoking flashbacks persist, positive experiences must allow for new memories to be formed.  If hatred stews incessantly, then regular acts of joy and giving must replace.  If heightened arousal remains, then daily measures of calming practices and peaceful encounters must move in.  Hard as it seems, unfair as it is, if joy and contentment are desired, somehow that rock must erode away.

But beyond self-blame and habitual practices, it appears that one factor looms above all. This issue serves to bury many people in the catacombs of their own selves and enables generations of trauma to ensue.  It is the factor of fear.  Born of stigmatization or alienation or condemnation or complete objectification, the dictatorial nature of fear knows no bounds.  In order to find meaning and transcendence, one must again find hope, and faith, and ultimately love.  Fear prevents love.  Without love of some kind, encountering regular joy becomes unlikely, and distress is always a window away.

So with that, I will end this series with a personal prayer that came out of a moment of my own frustration and futility years ago and took me down a path never intended. It later became part of a devotional entitled 40 Days of Hopeful Prayer and was featured in the December 2013 Just Thinking article, Moving Beyond the Fear of Fear.

There are days when the worry seems to dominate me

When I cannot see outside my head

My eyes reflect in those I know well

Although so much is left unsaid

I do not wish to fear the fear that seeps inside

Nor do I desire for the anxiety to take hold

But, as one perseveration seems to improve

Another one begins to unfold


Alas, I receive Your grace

And Your clarity rings through

I sense that with my worry

I am given an opportunity to do

For although the straight path seems more safe

And the unknown has much to fear

I sense that You are urging me

To come ever more near


To the purpose You are asking of me

To the image You have created long ago

To the journey that lies in store

Of that which I do not know

So here I stand at this moment now

If this be the case, I truly implore

That instead of only seeing what may go wrong

Let me see the possibilities in store


Let worry not immobilize my soul

Or freeze me where I am

But let it spur my body to act

And my mind to create again

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