Adaptation and bouncing forward

Millions of people face adversity, trials, and setbacks. Rather than haunting them, however, traumas often empower them.


News can seem to be a nonstop narrative of tragedies and victims: an unceasing flow of children, women, and men routed by war, fleeing drought, epidemics, terrorists, repression. These victims need urgent help – first aid, food, shelter, recovery assistance, developmental know-how.

 But while there will always be new tragedies and new victims, most of today’s will recover, rebuild, and get on with life. Everyone has ancestors who were dealt a blow. Even if some never quite shook off traumatic memories, most recovered, adapted, and went on with their lives. Their children were born in hope. Their grandchildren and great-grandchildren rarely know the privations they faced.

In a Monitor cover story (click here), Sara Miller Llana introduces you to Shahzad Haidari, a young Afghan whose harrowing trek has taken him far from his homeland. Like millions of people in the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia, he has been a victim; in his case, the Taliban were his oppressor. Shahzad is from Generation 1 of today’s wave of refugees. His story is about endurance and adaptation.

Shahzad is a prime example of what poet Maya Angelou once called “bouncing forward.” History is filled with accounts of people who have thrived after undergoing privation – the hero after trial by fire, the prophet after years in the wilderness. Our language is marbled with references to silver linings, the sweet uses of adversity, the lemons that make lemonade. In recent years, researchers studying the upside of setbacks have described a process of “post-traumatic growth,” a term coined by Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun, psychologists at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Post-traumatic growth is the flip side of post-traumatic stress. It is the event that shakes us deeply and often results in a newfound appreciation for life, a blossoming of altruism, a more spiritual outlook.

Studies commissioned by the US Department of Veterans Affairs indicate that while 50 percent of American adults report some traumatic incident in their lives, only 6 percent later report post-traumatic stress. It seems likely that the rest experienced a form of post-traumatic growth. Of course, even if post-traumatic growth prevails over stress, that doesn’t justify denying past wrongs or demanding that a grieving person simply get over it. Still, there is more to a setback than pain and suffering.

 Life is resilient. It flourishes in every nook and cranny on the planet. It adapts. Life doesn’t always end up the way it started out – and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Born in Afghanistan, Shahzad is now an Austrian middle-schooler. University is probably in his future. He loves his foster family, is well fed, socially integrated, hopeful. The years ahead could test him: Frightful memories could resurface, his multicultural identity could pull him in different directions. In his short life, Shahzad has lost family, friends, and homeland. But at 16 he seems to have lost something even more significant: victimhood. Like the life he has never not been a part of, he is bouncing forward.

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