What Bethany did
In early January, newspapers in North America featured a heartwarming picture of a 13-year-old blonde riding a wave on her surfboard. What made Bethany Hamilton's story news was that only 10 weeks earlier a tiger shark had ripped off this champion surfer's left arm.
Naturally, the US media raced after her story. Bethany has already appeared on prime-time news programmes such as Good Morning America and Inside Edition. Later this month, she'll be on Oprah and, in February, she'll be the cover girl on the Valentine issue of Teen Vogue.
While Bethany says she's alive because she asked for God's help, many would say it is because she didn't freak out, her companions were quick to improvise a tourniquet, and she was young and fit enough to handle the blood loss. She's getting all this attention because no one can fail to be awed by her courage. But there is something missing in the media flurry.
What is dramatically absent is any mention of trauma counsellors or any comments from psychiatric pundits who usually appear out of the woodwork when something sensationally upsetting occurs. There are no reports of counsellors swarming the Hawaiian beaches in search of traumatised friends and co-surfers. There are no experts pontificating about the emotional scars and psychic injuries that Bethany will one day have to deal with. No one, it seems, is uttering the familiar buzzwords 'victim' and 'trauma'.
So what is it about Bethany? Is her case a blip on the psychological screen or is the attention she's getting an indication of change in how we view traumatic events and their impact on people?
Bethany's first interviewer, Hawaii's KGMB 9 news anchor Guy Hagi, talked to her the day after the attack. He approached her hospital bed, seeing her not as a fragile victim but rather as a surfing star capable of 'teaching everyone how to deal with tragedy'. He could be right.
For decades, we have been mesmerised by notions of psychological trauma and taught to expect long-term devastating consequences. We have been persuaded that adversity breeds problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, leading to violence and suicide. Whether due to war, terrorism, accidents or abuse, the message from experts is that trauma leaves psychological wounds; that even a minor traffic accident or unkind words can cause emotional injury.
Bethany's reaction doesn't fit this mould. After coming through a real-life Jaws attack, she remains psychologically intact. She has not wallowed in self-pity, sunk into despair, crumbled into a state of grief, or asked for any special considerations. Rather, she has shown guts and determination, refusing to let the attack defeat her and, like surfers who wipe out, getting back up on her board.
This kind of resilience in the face of hardship has long been viewed as a quality of personal character. And never - certainly not before contemporary psychologists managed to convince people of their vulnerability - has it been considered a rare commodity.
Researchers who have studied survivors of unspeakable cruelty and Holocaust-level horror will probably not be surprised by Bethany's resilience. People, more often than not, survive tragedies psychologically unscathed. While such remarkable resilience remains a human mystery, there's usually a pattern to it. Their stories are often like Bethany's in that they involve some inextinguishable ability to find meaning in seemingly random events, to hold on to an ideal or a future plan, to believe in their ability to meet the challenge, and to exert control in whatever way is possible.
Is the once trendy victim ideology on its way out? 'Resilience' seems to have become the new buzzword in the marketplace of psychology; the revised message is that we are stronger than we think, and that with a little help we can develop these 'skills.' Immediately after the attacks of 11 September 2001, the American Psychological Association took a giant step back from its ongoing promotion of psychological trauma by telling the public that 'the skills of resilience should be in our psychological toolkit' to help us bounce back in times of war or in the face of any other adversity.
Some psychologists are promoting resilience as a psychological technique to deal with everything from 'family disruption, poverty, violence, substance abuse, and racism' to 'maintaining (our) health and productivity during times of fast-paced change'.
With the psychology industry now intent on marketing resilience, it's worth remembering that these are the same experts who, for decades, peddled victimhood - mistakenly telling survivors of unpleasant experiences, however trivial, that they need to go through the stages of grieving to find 'the courage to heal'.
I think it's great that psychology seem finally to be moving away from victim-making - but I see something ominous in the way trauma and grief counsellors are reinventing themselves as resilience coaches and trainers. I only hope that the many talk show hosts who helped promote the pessimistic messages of yesterday that turned America into what Charles Sykes called 'a nation of victims' will be more cautious in flogging this new entrepreneurial optimism. Because calling resilience a trainable skill is as misleading as suggesting that we need only return to a 'stiff upper lip mentality'.
Not all of us could bounce back like Bethany, just as few of us could ever surf the way she does. But even without all that she's got going for her, the odds are good that we'll prove to be stronger than we think possible when faced with life's emergencies, hardships, tragedies and terrors.
What Bethany Hamilton and others like her can do is remind us, by their example, that resilience is essentially a matter of character.
26 January 2004
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