Ive always been encouraged by strength.
Where others may be impressed by a person’s charm or accomplishments (or how many likes one can get on Instagram), I’ve always felt drawn to the silent strength that sits inside us. I spent my childhood reading books about strong women, the story of Helen Keller and Anne Frank’s diaries; with equal parts horror that the human spirit could be tested so far, and hope, that the human spirit could endure so much.
When my friends cited Madonna as their hero in grade five, I referenced Martin Luther King. I was born in the 70’s and lived through all of the Superman movies but didn’t know who Christopher Reeve was until he broke his back and became an advocate for stem cell research.
Strength to me has always been something of a mystery and a marvel. So its no coincidence, that I now work in the area of resilience and post-traumatic growth.
I spent my entire twenties working with people and families who had lost a loved one through homicide. It was a wonderful learning ground, where I could test out the greatest question I had at that time – What is it about those who thrive? Why is it that some fall apart after adversity and some seem strengthens by it? What is it about those people.
And I had a really personal interest in this because I had that shared experience of losing someone I loved to homicide, both my sister and father had been murdered in the year 2000 when I was just 21 years old. I knew both perpetrators, trusted both men. It was the greatest violation of trust Ive known.
For the purpose of today I’m going to mention my sister.
She and Kris met in the heat of summer. She was a young single mum who had recently separated from the father of her child, and he was a charming guy who made her forget her troubles. He was supposed to be a rebound guy, a fling, but by winter that year when everything else was cooling off their love had raged into an inferno, which now seemed to me impossible to extinguish.
And I did try to extinguish it. I would throw words out like buckets of water trying to tame their obsession for each other, and when that only drove her further into his arms I’d extend the olive branch only to find that the fire engulfed that too. Their love was intense, and I felt singed by it, until all I could do was back away. I was young, and completely ill equipped to deal with someone like him, a man whose weapons of choice was manipulation and control. He never hit her, I never even heard him put her down.
Just four months into their relationship, when she tried to leave his fire exploded when on the 30th July, he stabbed her to death in what police described as a frenzied attack. He was taken into custody that day, charged and convicted of her murder. I haven’t seen him since.
When we lose someone we’re told that our lives shatter, but no one talks about how it shatters. Its not like an immediate bang, like a cricket ball through a window. Its more like a chip in your windscreen. You see it, but you kind of keep driving hoping that it wont get worse. You lie, to others and yourself that everything will be okay and keep forging forward despite the crack that’s now peeling across the glass. Every time you hop in your car you remind yourself that you need to have that looked at, but there’s always somewhere to be, something more important to do.
When a person you love dies we say that we’ve lost them, but we don’t lose them at once, we lose them in pieces. The way the phone doesn’t ring for them anymore, their mail stops coming, and their scent disappears from their clothes. The day you decide not to continue renewing their phone account and their voice finally disappears.
The first rock only weakens your windscreen, and its often the second rock that shatters it. It’s the chipping away at someone’s strength, their heart, their very being that wears people down.
I wish I could tell you that in my personal experience I was mature and proactive and got the windscreen repair person out to fix my chip, but I didnt. In the end the lense through which I saw the world was so completely altered I couldnt see anymore, until all I could do was lean back, raise my feet, and kick my windscreen completely out so I could see and start driving again.
But sometimes that’s okay. When something shatters there’s grief and loss, but there is so much more, there is freedom and opportunity.
Earlier this year I wanted to fulfil my bucket list wish of learning the
traditional Japanese ceramic process of Kintsugi. The term may be unfamiliar, but Im sure you will recognise the end result shown here.
Now, not many people have even heard of Kintsugi, very few people teach it in fact no one in Australia teaches it, I found out I would need to go to Japan to have a lesson in this practice. Few would travel overseas for an art class but as Ive said, Im infatuated with strength and there’s few processes as strengthening and fascinating as that of the Kingsugi process.
And so, I did, and this is me.
Kintsugi involves the reparation of a broken object. Urushi, a lacquer that hardens like cement is applied bonding the broken edges of a piece back together, this process looks simple but requires patience as there are several steps each one taking a day to complete. Traditionally gold-dust is used to finish the process, an artistic twist that doesn’t seek to disguise but rather to highlight the cracks. This finishing move incorporates the blemishes of the piece into its broader story.
The Japanese recognise these pieces not as broken or disfigured, but as lived, and experienced and perfect. The Kintsugi concept is both simple and powerful. That shape and form is dynamic.
The application of kintsugi has some incredible nuances. Firstly it’s dangerous. Urushi is traditionally made from poison ivy and many if not most artists have deliciously awful reactions to its touch. The instrument of urushi is powerful, and not for the faint-hearted.
Likewise, the change that comes after adversity can be painful. There’s a fear in the unknown, an avoidance of further pain and suffering that can slow us and stop us completely. We’ve been conditioned socially to believe in the black and white of life. Good and bad. Love is good, pain is bad. Happy is good, loss is bad. Intactness is good, brokenness is bad.
Kintsugi is about the grey of life. In fact it doesn’t deal in binary concepts at all. Where life typically is about the boxes we can put concepts in, Kintsugi is about bowls, representing freedom and eternalism.
Ironically, Kintsugi is concerned with perfectionism. Now, google “perfectionism” and you’ll be met with images for cosmetic surgery. The word perfection however is derived from the Latin word “perficio”, which means “to bring to an end”. Perfection literally means “a finishing”. There is a recognition with Kintsugi practitioners, that before an object can be transformed, there must be an end to an original state. There must be a willingness to let go.
Author and Psychotherapist Mark Epstein tells the story of meeting the Thai meditation master Ajahn Chah, he writes:
Before saying a word, he [Ajahn Chah] motioned to a glass at his side. “Do you see this glass?” he asked us. “I love this glass. It holds the water admirably. When the sun shines on it, it reflects the light beautifully. When I tap it, it has a lovely ring. Yet for me, this glass is already broken. When the wind knocks it over or my elbow knocks it off the shelf and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say, ‘Of course.’ When I understand that this glass is already broken, every minute with it is precious.”
There is an enviable lack of attachment involved in this mindset and one which extends to the practice of Kintsugi. When we un-tether from our belief that life should be predictable and ordered and even just, we’re left with the reality that the only thing we can control in life is how we respond to it.
Resilience then becomes our inner elasticity, our ability to stretch beyond our comfort zones and still return to who we really are.
The greatest lesson from the Kintsugi process is this, broken objects are not restored to their original position, they are transformed into something else.
There is absolutely no attempt by the artist to return the object to its former state, and actually there is no grief for what was, but an anticipation of what could be.
Without doubt, the greatest struggle that I’ve witnessed in secondary victims of homicide is that of identity. Ive worked with mothers who have asked. “what do I call myself now” in the aftermath of their son’s death. “Am I still a mother?”
Ive worked with many people who considered themselves happy before they lost a loved one to homicide, and are now struggling to incorporate anger into their emotional life now. “But Im always the happy one – people wont like me if Im angry, and Im just so angry all the time”.
The philosophy of post-traumatic growth seeks to make meaning from these changing identities. It aims to retain the parts of a person that make them unique, and yet still build on that through the experience of hardship, transforming a person into someone thats remarkable.
The presence of pos-traumatic growth isn’t an outlier, its the norm. Studies occurring since the 90’s have found the presence of post-traumatic growth in 65, 75, 80% of those who have experienced trauma. Returning war veterans, victims of domestic and sexual violence, those who have lived through catastrophic natural disasters. Maslow found in his very early studies of high achievers that they all shared one commonality – adversity. Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers cites research that 85% of all American presidents have experienced the death of at least one parent.
Often when we’re working with people in crisis, whether we’re frontline first responders, social workers or academics our perspective is narrowed by the experience of people in crises. It can seem that the world is full of heartache and injustice and despair but there’s so much more to tragedy. The beauty in working with a support group like the homicide support group which supported people for years, decades, was that I bore witness to the metamorphosis we go through after adversity.
Yes, tough times bring great hardship. But they also bring significant transformation. Incredible hope, gratitude, strength and conviction. Adversity helps people refine their values, to connect with who they are at their worst and significantly, who they can be at their best.
How do we as workers in the area of domestic and family violence inspire resilience? Two ways: Firstly we simply believe in it. Beyond the theory, beyond the rhetoric and far beyond quotes like “God only gives us what he thinks we can handle”, we have to believe that people experiencing adversity can not only be restored but can actually transform into something greater.
Secondly we have to offer it as an option. We need to pull people out of their mammalian brains, activate their pre-frontal cortex and provoke them to start thinking about meaning-making.
Lets not treat a person’s PTSD and encourage them to return to the baseline – lets be fearless enough to remind them that they’re greater than the baseline. That their experience, their challenges have the potential to transform them. Let’s not simply erase the outliers because it doesn’t fit neatly into our data set and instead focus on the average – lets celebrate the outliers that create action through adversity.
When I was very early into my grief I met two professionals, and I’m indebted to them both. The first one said to me ‘you will never get over this’. I’m indebted to her because she frightened me. I wanted to prove her wrong.
The second worker offered me a quote, I’m indebted to him because it changed the entire way I looked at my loss. The quote is this: “be my reason, not my excuse’.
These two experiences became the bookends for me in my grief. At one end I had the choice to believe that life would never be the same, and in fact it would actually be terrible. At the other I had this highly aspirational idea, that I could in fact use my grief and my experience generally as a motivating force to be a greater, stronger, kinder, wiser version of myself.
Surviving victims of crime have within them an amazing reservoir of resilience, even when they don’t feel that they do, perhaps particularly when they don’t feel that they do. In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Holocaust survivor and Psychologist Viktor Frankl talks extensively about the adversity advantage, and that rather than viewing mental states of depression and anxiety as a by-product of trauma and something to be managed and medicated, we should encourage society to see these illnesses as achievements. A sign of survival, and triumph and conviction and determination.
Im going to finish on a final observation.
A Google search of synonyms for the word “victim” pulls up the following:
Sufferer. Injured. Wounded. Dupe. Easy target. Fool. Stooge. Prey. Object. Pushover. Chump. Helpless. Passive. and Scapegoat.
Its no wonder, victims of violence don’t want to ask for help. Of course our experience of working with victims probably looks significantly different than this, we see bravery and endurance and courage. Lets make sure that we take the time to reflect what we see in our clients back to them and start to challenge the stereotype so they too can see themselves as a courageous and resilient survivor.