On the morning of April 16th, I lost control of my Corvette on the back road into Petaluma. I was only slightly hurt in the accident – a bump on the head, a small neck strain – but my car was totaled. As I stepped out of the wreckage, I stepped into the state of shock and loss that follows in the aftermath of a traumatic experience.
Like the calm after a storm, the time after a crisis ushers in a time of reflection. It’s a natural sorting-out time, when deeper awarenesses and awakenings can emerge. After our world turns upside down, we have the opportunity to decide if we want to turn it right side up again in exactly the same way. It’s a natural time for choices and changes, for new goals and directions.
But the aftermath of trauma doesn’t feel good. As great an opportunity as crisis provides for positive change, it’s still uncomfortable and scary to tackle putting the pieces of your life back together again. Some people respond to the challenge with paralysis. Some are able to go into action. I want to share with you some thoughts and realizations, some things I’ve learned and relearned, that have come to me in the wake of my recent accident.
1. I am not in control.
I only like to think I am. I like to assume that I can predict the outcome of my decisions and actions. I will take this turn, call this person, say these words, sign this paper, write this check, and I believe that rationally certain things will follow. I will take this quick trip into town in my Corvette and be back in time for my staff meeting. I can fool myself into believing that what I expect to happen will happen. Sometimes what I expect does happen. But there are no guarantees. Control is an illusion.
2. I forget too quickly what’s really important
Like being alive. The things that really matter are the things you can’t replace easily, or maybe even at all. The so-called “simple things”, like people and relationships. Like health and moments of joy. I could grieve the loss of my Corvette, but what I really miss are the moments I spent driving it, the freedom I felt rounding curve after curve. I need to remember that the exhilaration and aliveness I felt doesn’t depend on the car. I can feel that way again without it. I can feel a thrill in just being alive, being in love with my wife, and embracing the next challenge.
3. “The Tortoise and the Hare” is not just for kids.
Remember the fable? The hare quickly goes out in front, but the tortoise wins the race. I’ve been trying to live my life way too fast. When I put myself under a lot of pressure and try to get too many things done at once, I can make mistakes or miss things. I’m unable to give sufficient attention and time to important matters. I can’t force an elephant through a keyhole. I can’t ripen green tomatoes overnight. Trying to get too much done in too little time is just like that.
4. If I “know pain”, I can “know gain”.
If we give ourselves permission to go through our crisis and heal, we can be transformed in the midst of our trauma experience. I can choose to respond to my accident in one of two ways: with resentment and bitterness, or by embracing change and growth. I can remain stuck, angry that my Corvette is totaled, scared that if I get another Corvette I might crash that one too (and possibly suffer significant injuries), or I can go on from here into the unknown future, where there’s a whole lot more in store for me. Where my story continues. I want to embrace my life by going through my trauma, not going around it or stopping cold in my tracks. I want to emerge a stronger, better person.
5. I am human and mortal.
My life could end at any time. An event like my accident urges me to remember that no one’s immortal. I feel my humanity and vulnerability more now than I have in many years. I don’t have that same feeling of security – physically or financially – that I took for granted for a long time. And, just as quickly as it might have happened to me, someone I love could be hurt seriously or die. I’m only human; I have no control over that (see Number 1 above).
I want to propose a somewhat radical picture of the lasting legacy of trauma. I see the wound of trauma as a friend. It is an uninvited, unexpected friend, to be sure. But if I accept it and build it into my life, my life will be transformed in ways I can’t begin to imagine. If I accept it, and share that with others – that this part of me is acceptable and so therefore this part of you is acceptable – we are drawn closer together. We see we’re all the same: human, mortal, without control, but with strength and depth and intrinsic value.
This is living in what I call “extraordinary reality”. It’s a quality you see in the lives of people like EMTs and other first responders to traumatic events. Their experiences and the sacrifices they make in serving others make them different people to be with. As a psychotherapist, I am a kind of “first responder”, too. I help people survive and heal from trauma. Experiencing trauma firsthand – as I did when I spun out of control on the way into town one recent fateful morning – and then embracing it, will only help me become more compassionate and skillful at the work which is my calling.