Can Traumatic Experiences Lead to Inner Development?

Marium IhsanMarch 6, 2023Violence and HealingThe Big Question
Can Traumatic Experiences Lead to Inner Development?

Artwork by Arturo De Arrascaeta Penayo, age 12

December 2020 was dark, gloomy, and especially cold — the fog settled in early in the evening and never disappeared, becoming a constant.

On one of these cold, dark nights my mother had an episode of what a lot of doctors term kaali khaansi, a black cough, or whooping cough. It was just as dense and cold, but most of all just as frightening, as the wind outside.

Winters that I associated with the warmth of my palms encircling mugs of hot coffee or with the comfort of the firewood cracking in the late hours of the night while I watched Gilmore Girls now became estranged and filled me with an alien feeling of loneliness and a constant sense of anticipation that something bad was quietly tip-toeing up behind me. What was special about this kaali khaansi was not just that it was a vicious cough of sorts but that every day after 9:00 pm it made an appearance, and every day after 9:00 pm for the next three weeks I would hold my breath and wait patiently to sit by my mother, feeling helpless, distraught, overthinking every wheeze, every pause she took, and convincing myself to prepare for the worst. For the next three weeks, every day I would raise the same worrying concerns, ask the same questions, think the same dreadful thoughts, and feel the same fearful feelings, unable to take myself out of this perpetual angst.

A lot of my worries were unjustified and incredibly exaggerated, but the experience in itself was significant enough to consume me entirely for three weeks and leave an imprint large enough for me to remember even today. No matter how the scale of the experience varies on the superficial “trauma scale” that authorizes the world to dictate whether or not there is validity in the emotions you feel, it is still enough for an adolescent or a child to navigate their inner and outer environments around the painful experiences they hold onto.

Most people are faced with traumatic situations, whether those be engravings of childhood experiences, tragedies they have had to face throughout their life, or a single event tumultuous enough to alter their way of approaching situations. Each of these experiences can manifest as anxiety, depression, substance abuse, or other mentally overwhelming strains. These are generally consequent to the development of varying coping mechanisms, from those who never miss an opportunity to crack a dark joke, to those who become shyer and more introverted, to those who use mediums of expression like art, music, or writing.

The foundations of most progressive movements themselves stem from the historical constraints and persecutions that diverse communities have had to face. This presents an interesting thought: could the experience of trauma ignite a restorative resilience within individuals? An example affirming this view is the women’s rights movement. Denied, silenced, and ignored, women across the world have had to fight battles far too many times for far too many reasons.

On a school bus in 2012, on her way to what was an ordinary day of school in Swat, Malala Yousafzai became one of the countless survivors of a movement to terminate women’s access to education. What would have been a heartbreaking headline concerning the death of yet another 15-year-old girl instead became an international and united uproar demanding accountability and change. Would Malala have fought so fearlessly in an endless struggle for girls’ education if she had not had to face such awful adversity? While we can’t answer this question directly, what we do understand from the event is that when individuals are confronted with violence, when their sanctity is threatened, when they have to look evil in the eye, there is a burning flame. For Malala this flame promised to ensure that instead of isolating the traumatic experience, she made a conscious effort to fight against the perpetrators of her trauma and the trauma of the thousands of girls denied an absolute right.

Perhaps, one of the most significant ways of understanding whether or not trauma can lead to inner development is through poets. If humanity was at war against trauma, the leaders of the battalion would be the poets. They would raise their swords to take down the brutality of the opposition, they would never bend in the instant of vulnerability, and they would be the shields of empathy that organize all the thoughts and all the words that their people couldn’t express.

Poetry yields this subconscious power of literary excellence even when plagued with death, grief, sorrow, pity, or ruin. For me, poetry gives an access to wallow in the displeasure of pain — the prettiest of poems display the most intricate of horrifying thoughts. For me, there is an eerie comfort in the resonance I feel when I read poetry that portrays shared experiences in the calmest of tones, enough to cause a smile and heal bits and pieces of impressionable wounds.

In fact, it’s best understood by Aracelis Girmay’s words, “I am amazed by how much people can survive, endure — and how they can go on living, laughing.” Each of us struggles with instances that may make us feel weak, helpless, and incapable of coping, but more often than not we end up learning and using those experiences as lanterns of guidance that shape our personality and provide us with wisdom. Our inner development is not just measured by how successful we become through our trauma but by how it reminds us of our strength. Fragility does not make us puny and weak but enables us to better comprehend our emotions and consequently how to better tackle the worst of situations.

December 2020 created an impression that strengthened my perception for the better. It exists as a reminder to me that while I captain my ship, I will encounter winds that imbalance the pivot of my course, I will encounter storms that rain heavy and cold, I will encounter bolts of lightning that are unpredictable and forceful, but a captain’s duty is to persist even when persistence is met with high tides multiplying in size in the darkness of cloudy nights. It rests as a comforting reminder that in the grooves of my being there is a certainty that, even after periods of disdain and sadness, it is only right for me to begin again.

December 2020, I’ll always remember you,
I’ll remember how the fog settled in,
How early it got dark,
I’ll remember the viciousness you brought with you,
But most of all what you taught me of myself,
I’ll carry with me every cold breeze from that winter because, without it,
I do not know perseverance,
I do not learn selflessness for others,
I do not have strength.

Marium Ihsan is a 15-year-old from Lahore, Pakistan, who enjoys writing articles about topics she is passionate about and exploring new and interesting areas of science.