Responding to Tragedies

Bad things happen to everyone: from failed projects to lost jobs; broken bones to cancer; loved ones die.  This was Buddha’s first noble truth: life is dukkha or suffering.  But, we respond to suffering in a variety of ways.  For religious believers these tragic events can make or break their faith.  In times of tragedy, some find comfort in their faith.  Others, unable to reconcile a good God doing bad things, reject their faith.  And, there is a spectrum of responses in-between.   But, what makes us react these different ways?

A couple of years ago, a dear childhood friend lost his little brother.  His brother, otherwise perfectly healthy, dropped dead one day while playing baseball.  For me, this loss of a young, vibrant life is the epitome of tragedy.  Afterwards, my friend’s mother fell into a deep depression that remains unresolved.  But, my friend admirably carries both his grief and his faith.  This question, of how we react to tragedy, is not mere intellectual curiosity.  It bears deep implications for how we live.  This means that any study into the cause of our responses is facing a monumental task.

New research out of Seattle Pacific University  looks at how our “cognitive flexibility” impacts our response.  Cognitive flexibility is a way of describing the scope of our awareness.  If you can imagine many different ways to cope with a situation then you likely have high cognitive flexibility.  If I can’t imagine your point of view, then I need to do a little more cognitive stretching.

Trauma, understandably, has a negative effect on cognitive flexibility.  A variety of studies have described the black-and-white, absolutistic, thinking common in people with PTSD.  While major life events can affect our cognitive flexibility, this flexibility can also impact our lives.  Other research shows that a high cognitive flexibility makes it easier to handle disagreements in relationships and to forgive others.

So, if cognitive flexibility helps us forgive others, then it would make sense that it also helps people forgive God after a hurricane wrecks their home.  But, whether it is correlated or causal isn’t so clear.  Russell McCann and Marcia Webb, Clinical Psychologists from SPU, set out to disentangle the complex knot of how traumatic events affect our view of God.

They gave their participants three surveys.  The first measured the presence of PTSD symptoms: intrusive memories of the trauma,; numbness or avoidance; or hyperarousal- being jumpy or easily startled.  It’s important to remember that they simply measured symptoms not the nature of the trauma itself.

The second survey measured cognitive flexibility.  And they finally measured how people relate to God with the aptly (and humorously) named “Suffering with God Scale.”  From this third survey McCann and Webb found two primary ways people react to God after a traumatic event: they either “endure” or they “struggle” with God.

“Enduring” is sticking with your faith through the difficulty.  It was measured with statements like “My faith is strengthened through hard times.”  “Struggling” on the other hand, means taking God to task or abandoning the schmuck altogether.  Struggling was rated by people’s anger towards God or difficulty forgiving.

After taking these three measures, they ran a variety of statistical analyses to look for any relationships.  A couple of relationships emerged, but even these relationships were not clean and crisp.

As expected, the more traumatic symptoms people had, the more likely they were to struggle with God.  But, those with higher cognitive flexibility struggled less.  So, regardless of flexibility, tragedies will likely make you angry with God, but the more flexible you are, the less pissed you’ll be at God after a crisis.

There seemed to be a threshold in how cognitive flexibility affected enduring.  Low flexibility led one to stick with God less as traumatic symptoms increase.  But, people with medium and high flexibility endured more.  So if you can imagine alternatives and handle paradox you are more likely to find comfort in your faith in spite of tragedies.

In many ways this study simply confirmed expectations: tragedies led us to question God and the more imaginative we are, the less likely we are to be shook by those tragedies.  But, when I think of my friend and his mother, the results feel unsatisfying.  Am I simply to say “oh, she’s just depressed because of low cognitive flexibility.”  Forget anger towards God, I’d have some rightly earned anger coming at me!

In the light of real suffering the results feel a bit trivial.  But, I imagine this is because the question is so personal and so complex.  We want a simply solution, but the Gordian Knot of suffering is too tangled for easy answers.

Trauma is too multifaceted to be measured by a single standard.  You may be able to trace symptoms, as this study did, but this doesn’t distinguish between the variety of trauma.  Losing a loved one, being sexually assaulted and handling the terror of war are all incredibly different traumas.  No doubt, each event will affect how we see the sacred, but these effects will be dramatically different, even if the symptoms are similar.

How we relate to the sacred, is also a very complex relationship.  Struggle could mean the intense spiritual crucible of doubt that challenges and transforms ideas of the sacred.  Or, it could simply mean being pissed at God.  Enduring could mean the persistence of Mother Teresa’s belief during a dark night of the soul, or the simple steady acceptance that doesn’t engage doubt.  This study completely leaves out atheists, whose response to suffering must be taken into account.

The knot of suffering is made of many threads.  And they are tangled beyond any simple solution.  Even though McCann and Webb didn’t find a clear and clean relationship, they slightly loosened the problem and showed how one thread, cognitive flexibility, is bound up in the mess.  While the results may not be the easy answer we crave, every small unraveling of the knot is helpful.