Post Traumatic Growth

“…’Theodore, you have the mind, but you have not the body, and without the help of the body the mind cannot go as far as it should. You must build yourself up through your own effort. You must make your body.’ It was a summons and the offer of a counterpoise, a way, the one way, to right his own balance.

‘It is hard drudgery to make one’s body,’ the father said, ‘but I know you can do it.’

And with that, allegedly, the sorry little specimen threw back his head and declared he would do it.”

-David McCullough, Mornings on Horseback: The story of an extraordinary family, a vanished way of life, and the unique child who became Theodore Roosevelt

These are the words Theodore Roosevelt Sr. said to his young son after another sleepless night of listening to Teddy coughing away with asthma.

After trying much of the remedies for asthma that were popular in the 1800’s (which included smoking cigars), Theodore Sr. turned to Doctor Salter who had a different approach:

Much of what Salter wrote on the importance of exercise reads as if it might have been the very text for all Theodore was to preach to his small son and that the son himself would choose as his own lifelong creed. ‘Organs are made for action, not existence; they are made to work, not to be; and when they work well they can be well,’ insisted Dr. Salter.”

Now, although I overcame my childhood asthma in a similar way, I am not a doctor and am not privy to the modern approaches to asthma. What I am interested in is what David McCullough describes as the psychological effects of asthma. In doing the research for his book on the young life of Teddy Roosevelt, McCullough met with many of the modern experts in asthma.

Here is what he learned about the child who overcomes asthma:

Ailments other than asthma, any of the inevitable knocks and scrapes of childhood, or of later life, are often taken with notable stoicism. It is as if having experienced asthma, he finds other pains and discomforts mild by comparison.

He has learned at an early age what a precarious, unpredictable thing life is – and how very vulnerable he is. He must be prepared always for the worst.

But the chief lesson is that life is quite literally a battle. And the test is how he responds, in essence whether he sees himself as a helpless victim or decides to fight back, whether he becomes, as Teddy was to say of a particular variety of desert bird, ‘extremely tenacious of life.’”

Earlier this week I had a conversation with two veterans who now work with student veterans through an organization called Student Veterans of America. I learned a lot from the conversation I had with them, of the many ideas they shared one in particular stood out. Their organization encourages a mind-set of what they call “post traumatic growth”. Knowing that the intensity of human experience some veterans have faced, if approached correctly, can build resilience and trigger growth like nothing else.

2020 has presented many challenges, especially the confrontation with mortality of ourselves, family members, neighbors, and the general public at large; a real sense of memento mori is present. I believe that, if approached correctly, those who have lived through this crazy time will have their own period of post traumatic growth that will allow them to face the inevitable bumps in the road later in life with their own notable stoicism.

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