Is Total Recovery Possible?

There are countless life experiences that cause people to feel broken in some way. And when we are broken, we often develop negative symptoms of that brokenness that we then start fixating on as flaws that we really want to fix. From then on, we measure our “recovery” in terms of how much progress we have made in eliminating those specific negative traits.

Perhaps you have a very negative view of your body thanks to your dad’s abuse of you as a kid. Perhaps your sex drive has become focused on the wrong targets due to someone molesting you in the past. Perhaps you are too prone to jealousy or too prone to drinking. The fallout from being deeply hurt in life often results in attitudes, behaviors, and perspectives which cause us a lot of misery, so it’s only natural that we want to fix those things and improve our quality of life. But how possible is it to do this? Can you really fix a negative self-image that you’ve been embracing your entire life? Can you really break out of your life long pattern of choosing abusive jerks for your romantic partners? Is it realistic to even try to get your sex drive to make major changes to its preferred targets? In other words, how much hope can you really have?

The Common View

I often hear people giving each other the depressing diagnosis of: the pain never stops, it just gets more bearable. Or the struggle will never end, so you just have to take it one day at a time. The people who hand out this kind of “experienced” advice tend to be folks who never got very far in their own healing process. It’s also quite common that the folks who claim certain problems can never be overcome have also settled for viewing those problems as their defining characteristic. “Hello, I’m John, an alcoholic.” While acknowledging your struggle is a vital step of healing, defining yourself by it is only going to get you stalled.

Mary can’t engage in conversation with a stranger for longer than two minutes without working in the fact that she had a stillborn child twelve years ago who she still grieves the loss of on a daily basis. Medical complications surrounding that event left Mary unable to conceive any more children. Mary has taken that single, traumatic event and turned it into her defining characteristic. Instead of viewing herself as a complex human being who is full of potential, she defines herself as the woman who lost her only child.

When Wendy talks with other people, she is very quick to slip in the fact that she works at a charity organization that encourages infertile couples to adopt children who have already been born rather than pursue expensive fertility treatments. Wendy loves what she does. She gets great satisfaction by helping couples change their sorrow into joy. Like Mary, Wendy also miscarried her first child and lost her ability to conceive all in the same terrible moment. But while Mary is making the loss her focus, Wendy is choosing to focus on the good that has come out of that pain. If Wendy hadn’t lost her child and been personally devastated by infertility, she would have never considered adopting or helping other couples to do so. Today Wendy can look back at her life and see a clear connection between her personal tragedy and her compassion for barren couples. She can also see how her own loss is amplifying her current joy at connecting couples with children who need their love.

So, has Wendy “recovered”? It depends how you define that term. Many people link recovery with the concept of reverting back to who they were before they were hurt. If this is how you define recovery, then it is quite impossible to ever fully recover from any experience because once you go through a breaking experience, that event changes you in permanent ways. It is supposed to change you–that’s the whole point. But being changed is also only the first step.

The Seed

To a gardener who loves apple trees, an apple seed is a thrilling thing. That single seed is miraculously packed with the incredible potential to morph into a tree that can produce many apples over many years. Of course none of that potential will ever be realized if the gardener leaves the seed on a shelf in his greenhouse. The gardener can even build a mini shrine for the seed: resting it on a fine velvet cushion, illuminating it with a spotlight, and keeping it dust free under a clear glass case. Often this is what people mentally do to their youth or to the period of life before tragedy struck. “Those were the days,” they sigh wistfully. “If only I could go back in time and stay there forever.” And yet while our seed is getting adorned and exalted, what’s happening to its amazing potential? What’s happening to its purpose, its destiny? As it sits in its sparkling display case getting admired by the gardener and all of his friends, the seed is just wasting away, never getting to become what it was meant to be. In the same way, when damaged adults sit around pining over their lives before “everything fell apart,” they never get around to reaping the benefits of their pain.

There’s only one way for our seed to get to become all that it was meant to be, and that is for it to be planted and nurtured along until one day it ruptures and its original self is forever destroyed. The evolution from seed to apple tree is an irreversible process. You can stop the progress at any stage, and you can even cause the budding plant to wither and die, but you can never get your perfect little seed back again. Once it is lost, it is lost forever. And yet until it is destroyed, that seed can never become the wonderful thing it was meant to be.

Human beings were designed to grow through ruptures, fractures and hurts. Our lives don’t have to be filled with these things before we can get anywhere, but in any life, it is the most painful moments that cause the greatest shifts in the person’s development, and give them the greatest opportunities to flower into someone far more wonderful than they ever thought they could be.

When we are kids dreaming of who we want to be, we usually think in terms of what we will accomplish and who we will impress. Perhaps we want to become a famous sports star, or a powerful businessman, or a skilled doctor. Maybe we want to see the world, or beat famous records, or wow all of mankind by being the first to do something. Yet while we’re busy thinking of all the people we want to impact and the things we want to accomplish and the wealth we want to gather, we rarely think about our internal character. When you ask a child “What do you want to be when you grow up?” they usually list a career choice. They don’t say something like, “I want to be a kind and compassionate person who is full of grace and wisdom.” And yet as adults, those are the kinds of people we end up admiring most. The point is that your inner character is your most important quality, not how well-adjusted you are.

In my line of work, I talk to a lot of people who have some major unresolved issues which are causing them to engage in a lot of very negative behaviors. When clients come to me for help, they are usually very frustrated and/or ashamed about some particular struggle they are having, and they are entirely focused on wanting to get that problem out of their lives. Yet when I’m talking to them, I always start seeing evidence of how that struggle is changing them in positive ways, and I can see how their inner character has really flowered because of it. The world’s biggest jerks are almost always traumatized people. But so are the world’s most merciful, gracious, and kind people. Compassion flows effortlessly from the man who has personally struggled with alcoholism as he talks with another addict. Meanwhile, another man who has never battled with addiction harshly shames those who do struggle, doing only damage with his condescending attitude. If you want to make a real difference in this world, the development of your own character is what you should be focusing on, and the only way your character is ever going to evolve past certain stages is if you go through some negative experiences.

It’s interesting to ponder how the qualities that we cherish most in other humans and in God are all qualities that are directly associated with pain. Things like compassion, patience, mercy, comfort, and grace only come up in a context where something is going wrong. The friend who is with you when you’re up is all fine and well, but the friend who shows up when you’re down makes you feel loved on a much deeper level. We don’t need anyone to teach us the value of things like grace and compassion: we instinctively understand how priceless these things are. And yet what we don’t acknowledge often enough is that these treasures can only be acquired through some form of personal suffering. It doesn’t mean your life has to be one big downer. But a perfect childhood that leads to a perfect adulthood in which you are never challenged, never heartbroken, never disappointed, and never the one who fails will result in you sitting on that shelf alongside that apple seed: looking pretty, but going nowhere.

Changing Your Priorities

So then, is full recovery possible? Well, if you won’t be happy until you revert back to who you were before you were broken, then the answer is clearly no. But forget about that answer, because that was the wrong question to ask. Instead of focusing on how fast you can erase any evidence of tragedy from your life, focus instead on how much you can be changed for the better because of what you went through. Just as a tree can sprout up strong and healthy alongside a bunch of ugly weeds, your inner character can thrive in the midst of some ugly behaviors and negative perspectives. As you mature on the inside, the external issues will mellow out. They might not disappear entirely, but they won’t own you, either, because you won’t be making them your entire identity.

John is not just an alcoholic. John is a complex individual who is full of potential, and his current struggle with a drug addiction is a key that can unlock the door to some of that potential. Rather than view his addiction as a shameful flaw, John should look at it as an opportunity to thrive. Sure, this wasn’t part of his plan. He wanted to accomplish big things in his life: be a mover and shaker in the corporate world. Now no one will hire him because he can’t stay sober for 48 hours straight. So does that mean he’s a lost cause? No, it means he’s in the midst of a transition. John is like a seed that is going through its rupture stage. John is collecting experiences right now that can unlock the door to some wonderful new perspectives. Understanding what it’s like to be chained to a substance and to be literally unable to stop yourself from lifting a drink are insights that no one wants to volunteer to gain, yet they can unlock doors to the kind of understanding that is so common among those people that we all secretly admire: the ones who really get it. The ones who listen without making us feel like losers. The ones who can see beauty in the midst of ugliness, and light in the midst of darkness. If true recovery would rob you of all of that, why would you want it? To go through a life-changing experience and end up totally unchanged because you managed to revert back to who you were before it ever happened–what a waste that would be.

Humans are designed to thrive when they are continuously maturing. It’s when growth comes to a halt or we start regressing that we end up withering. But when we are approaching life with attitudes of “What new insight can I learn today?” and “What positive lesson can I glean from this rotten situation?”, then we keep growing and changing into better and better versions of ourselves.

So then, today you are stuck in some area of your life, perhaps seeing negative behavior patterns or bad perspectives that you just can’t shake. Instead of getting despaired about the tough problems, realize that the bigger the issue is and the more areas of your life it is affecting, the further it can push you forward in your personal development.

This post was written in response to a request.

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