Lost, Loved, Learned: Post Traumatic Growth (Kol Nidrei 5782, September 15, 2021)
There’s a cartoon I saw a couple weeks ago that captures how I’ve been feeling. Maybe it speaks to you, too. In case you can’t see what’s on the screen, I’ll describe it. A person is sitting at a table, head bent facedown, collapsed onto their arms. In front of the person is a juice-pressing machine, with a lemon in the contraption and a glass partially filled with lemonade below. To the person’s left, the table is covered with glass containers as far as the eye can see, all of which are filled with lemonade. Clearly the person has been squeezing a lot of lemons. On the person’s right is a giant pile of lemons. But most insidiously, above the pile of lemons is a large tube that seems to be shooting even more lemons at the poor person, such that they are ricocheting off the person’s slumped shoulder and back.
Have you felt like that at all in these past many months? The artist, Will Santino, remarked about the cartoon, “Too many lemons. Tired of lemonade.” That about sums it up for me. Over all these months of pandemic, we keep trying to make lemonade out of the many lemons life has given us. But sometimes that can be wearying. We may try and try to keep a positive outlook, or find a silver lining, or make the best of a bad situation. But sometimes, it just feels unrelenting, like there’s a machine that keeps shooting lemons at us.
Over these months, I have been thinking and learning and reading about the mental health impact that the pandemic has had on us. I am no psychologist, but I’ve been deeply influenced by the teachings of Dr. Betsy Stone. Dr. Stone is a retired psychologist and an adjunct lecturer at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, the Reform movement’s seminary, and I think she has much to teach us about our pandemic and post-pandemic life.
Dr. Stone points out that the pandemic has confronted us with unrelenting waves of trauma. We are in the midst of an “ongoing cascade of grief and loss.” Ordinarily when we face trauma, it happens and then it is over. We have time to recover and work through the issues it causes. The endlessness of this pandemic has robbed us of that recovery time. Our brains aren’t designed for this level of constant assault. We need time to recuperate and mend mentally. That’s the exhaustion of the person in the cartoon, who has been coping as best they can, but feels overwhelmed by the relentless sense of trauma.
When we are faced with traumatic stressors in our life, two things can happen. Sometimes, we get stuck in place. The trauma, even when no longer present, prevents us from carrying on with life as normal. Loosely speaking, when this persists, it can become Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. We are blocked from moving on from the trauma we experienced. This is a very real reaction to trauma and, if you are experiencing this, there are resources and people to help you.
Sometimes, Dr. Stone teaches, our reaction to stressors and trauma is not a feeling of being stuck in place, but an opportunity to change. This is called Post Traumatic Growth. Post Traumatic Growth is actually built into the Yom Kippur experience. And that can be a model for how we encourage Post Traumatic Growth for us in the months to come.
We’ve already experienced an opportunity for Post Traumatic Growth tonight: the Kol Nidrei prayer. In truth, Kol Nidrei is not really a prayer. It is a legal proclamation of sorts. It declares that all of the vows and promises we make may be considered null and void. The intention is that, if we, after honest effort, cannot fulfill these promises, then we may be absolved of them. Each year, we make promises to do things, or not to do things. We do not follow through on every one of those promises. We do things we wish we hadn’t, or we don’t do things we wish we had. And when the year ends and those vows and promises are broken, we can get stuck in those old ways. Or we may get stuck in a cycle of self-recrimination, beating ourselves up over what we did or didn’t do. Instead, Kol Nidrei lets us say, “Those vows I tried to fulfill, please, God, consider them nullified. I tried my best, I gave it an honest effort, but still I failed. Please forgive me.” And instead of getting stuck in the past, with this release of vows, we are able to move on. That moving forward, that growing from the stressors of the experience, is akin to Post Traumatic Growth, and it’s something we can model all year long.
So how do we do this? How do we seek strength from our traumatic experiences?
We start by recognizing the losses we have had, the grief we have felt, the trauma we have experienced. Over the past two weeks, many of you participated in a brief, anonymous exercise I created. I asked you to share the Torah of your lives, reflecting on this past year. The first question was “During this past year, what did I lose?” Here on the screen is a wordcloud representing what you said. Among the many answers: specific people in our lives, lost to illness; time; connections to others; opportunities to see friends or family; travel; freedom; a sense of purpose. I was only a little surprised no one wrote “my marbles” or “my sanity,” but someone did write, “sleep and 60 pounds.” As a whole, clearly, there is so much that we lost this past year.
Loss engenders a sense of grief. And when people speak of grief, they often will mention five stages of grief based on Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s work with the dying: denial, anger, bargaining, sorrow, and acceptance. Dr. Stone, along with many others, posits a sixth stage when dealing with grief: making meaning. When we make meaning from grief or loss, we acknowledge what has happened and have found a way to integrate it into our lives. We can identify how the loss has become part of our story. We can say what we have learned from the loss. In fact, the experience of the loss is no longer passive. This wasn’t just something that happened to us. We have found a way to be active with the loss, to write it into the personal narrative of our life.
According to Dr. Stone, trauma in general, and the pandemic in particular, forces us to rewrite our stories. The story we told pre-trauma is not the same as the one we will tell post-trauma. We figure out what we can tell about it, what meaning we can make out of it. And when we can make meaning from trauma and tell a different story about it, that is Post Traumatic Growth.
Dr. Stone writes, “researchers looking at how people grow after trauma find that there are six areas of Post-Traumatic Growth.”
First: awareness of personal strengths. It’s an approach the rabbis called “hakarat hatov,” or “recognizing the good.” Even in the midst of experiencing trauma, as we have made our way through this pandemic, many of us have discovered what we CAN do. This may be the uncovering of hidden strengths we didn’t know we had. It may be talents we developed or skills we nurtured. In the Pandemic Reflection exercise, some of your answers to the question, “What did I learn this past year?” highlighted awareness of personal strengths, as you can see by this wordcloud. We learned how to spend time with our self, how to ask for help, how to cook. We discovered that we could be productive working from home, that we could be more patient than we thought, that we were really skilled at doing puzzles or growing red beets. We found that we are more resilient than we ever thought imaginable. These are things we can elevate and celebrate from our pandemic experience.
A second area of Post Traumatic Growth is a reprioritization of values. As a result of the pandemic, people have been reevaluating what is important to them, what they do or do not truly care about. Workers are leaving their jobs in the “Great Resignation” for other careers or following dreams that they hope will be more fulfilling. We’ve paid more attention to how we spend our time, putting energy and resources into things we find worthwhile. I’ll gladly attribute the robust attendance at Zoom services to this idea of reprioritizing what is truly meaningful to us.
Third: Post Traumatic Growth comes in deeper and more meaningful relationships, bein adam l’chavero, between one person and another. A show of hands (in the Sanctuary and at home, too): how many of us reconnected over the past 18 months with people we had not spoken with or heard from in a long time? I found myself in online conversations with people I went to summer camp with 32 years ago, some of whom I haven’t thought of since then! And how many of us were able to connect with people we care closely about, and suddenly found we had so much more time for them? I know that, for some of us, the inability to see loved ones in person has been the hardest part of this pandemic. But that also indicates the deep meaning we ascribe to those relationships. Post Traumatic Growth also entails an increase in compassion and altruism, says Dr. Stone, the chein v’chesed v’rachamim we ask for in our Sim Shalom prayer. We can see other people’s problems as our own. Granted, this may have been more prevalent earlier on in the pandemic, with neighbors helping neighbors, charitable contributions rising, spontaneous applause for medical personnel and frontline workers. We may have grown less compassionate the more tired we have become. Nevertheless, in so many cases, our relationships with other have grown and deepened, even in the midst of this trauma.
Fourth: Appreciation of life. Even during the hardships of the pandemic, many people have grown in gratitude. This is the value of hoda’ah, thanksgiving. There is increased recognition of the blessings we have in our lives, the fortune bestowed upon us. Here, too, some of your answers to the question, “What did I love this past year?” have highlighted your sense of appreciation. Looking again to the wordcloud, we are grateful for friends and family, for the lack of a commute, for “the slower and more simple life that didn’t involve rushing around everywhere,” for time outside, for less traffic, for kittens, for our TBS community. We grow when we are able to be grateful for our blessings.
A fifth area of Post Traumatic Growth is creativity. Part of this is technological innovation, enabling us to find new ways of doing things from visiting a doctor to teaching a class to exchanging money digitally. Artistic creativity is also a sign of growth. Tik Tok users spawned an entire musical online based on the Disney movie “Ratatouille.” We have only begun to see the poetry, the music, the art, and the drama that this pandemic engendered.
The sixth and final area of Post-Traumatic Growth is having a sense of being part of something bigger than yourself, or what Dr. Stone calls spiritual growth. So many examples you gave in response to the question, “What did you learn this year?” point towards this type of growth. Looking again to the wordcloud, people wrote: “I learned to accept and be myself a little better;” “Material things are not as important as I thought they were;” “I don’t need work to define me;” “you have to live your life in a way that you can be proud of, every day,” “community is everything.” This is the Torah of our lives, the important principles that we can draw from our experiences, examples of spiritual growth.
All of these areas of growth – awareness of personal strengths, reprioritizing our values, deepened relationships with others, appreciation of life, creativity, and spiritual change – all of them help us make meaning from this trauma. All of them are ways of adding to, adapting, and rewriting the story that we tell.
Maybe you grew in all of these areas. And maybe you didn’t. Sometimes we sit with the lemons life gives us, too tired or overwhelmed to make any more lemonade. And that’s ok. Not everything can be a lesson. Not everything has to prompt growth. Sometimes we just have to be stuck in the place where we are.
It isn’t easy to make meaning from the trauma we experience. It takes work and dedication and the support of others. But the survey answers that you shared showed that we CAN recognize what we have lost, what we have loved, and what we have learned. We CAN rewrite our stories. We can and we will find ways to move through these unrelenting waves of trauma, moving towards growth.
And that is what we are doing in these High Holy Days. Our story from this pandemic year is the experiences we lived, the Torah of our lives. We learn from the past to help us live more fully in the future. We seek to learn from our previous selves and become the next, better editions of our selves in the year to come.
On this night of Kol Nidrei, we move past our broken promises and unfulfilled vows of what we didn’t do this past year. We pledge to God, to others, to ourselves that we will move ahead into the new year with renewed aspirations and hopes. We may not complete every undertaking, but we do not shy away from trying. We may get stuck in the trauma of the past, but we are undeterred from seeking to make meaning in our lives. For we know, ultimately, that we will grow.
May You see that potential for growth in us, O God.
And may you help us make it real in our lives.
Kein yehi ratzon, may this be God’s will.
And together we say, Amen.
 https://www.instagram.com/p/CTU0_GLrEmf/?hl=en  See https://www.betsystonephd.com/about for a biography; Workshop at CCAR Convention, online, March 14-17, 2021; for a listing of her recently published articles, see https://ejewishphilanthropy.com/authors/dr-betsy-stone/
If anything analytical I say in this sermon strikes you as brilliant, my words are just a reflection of Dr. Stone’s teachings. And if I say anything psychologically wrong, that’s just my misunderstanding of her work! https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/post-traumatic-stress-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20355967  https://www.wordclouds.com makes it very easy to generate wordclouds  See https://grief.com/the-five-stages-of-grief/  Dr. Betsy Stone, “Are We Hugging?” https://ejewishphilanthropy.com/are-we-hugging/  https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20210629-the-great-resignation-how-employers-drove-workers-to-quit  https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/31/theater/ratatouille-tiktok-musical.html