Post-Traumatic Growth or PTG is term that is growing in usage to describe the positive effects that result from suffering whether psychological or physical. Typically, the case studies involved in research in this area (which has also been called “productive suffering” by psychotherapist John Davies) cover the entire spectrum of suffering from hangnails to the Holocaust.
The significance of the evidence collected is that it precisely corroborates from a secular standpoint what Christian spiritual masters have been saying about penance and mortification for centuries but at a natural and empirical level. Modern science and socio-cultural anthropology are of course too limited in scope to be able to address the theological and supernatural claims put forward by the Desert Fathers and Mothers and other great ascetics.
Nonetheless, the possibility for someone who undergoes the most heinous acts of oppression to come out better than she was and by no other means than precisely going through such monumental suffering is in fact supported by more and more empirical data.
It is important to note that while we might readily draw the conclusion that such data is dangerous—after all, wouldn’t it “exonerate” someone like Hitler who “provided an improvement opportunity” to the Jews?—we should also underscore the fact that no one, and I mean NO ONE has the right or the capacity to determine which suffering would turn out to someone’s advantage.
Precisely because of this lack of knowledge, which is not possible to be known by another individual—for the Lord searches every heart and understands every desire and every thought (1 Chron 28:9)—neither do any of us have the right to cause suffering except when it is certain to avoid a greater harm or evil for the one whom we cause suffering. A perfect example of this is the surgeon whose actions preserve life and avoid a greater evil (like death) but nonetheless causes suffering (post-operational recovery pains).
The good news that this brings us, and is testified to in John Paul II’s Salvifici Doloris, is that “to suffer means to become particularly susceptible, particularly open to the working of the salvific powers of God, offered to humanity in Christ.” It means that all of the suffering endured by those affected by Ebola, by our Iraqi brothers and sisters who have been force to flee their homeland in search of refuge from ISIS, by those who have been unjustly forced into human trafficking rings, has the potential to bring about some kind of good, some kind of spiritual growth, even while we fight doggedly to bring about solutions to these grotesque evils until we wipe them from the face of the earth.
Even when suffering cannot be avoided, it is not pain which has the last word, but love and goodness.