Two meanings of catastrophe

I’ve had a number of conversations in the past few weeks with folks who’s lives, in one way or another, are falling apart. Being a psychotherapist, it’s not so unusual. What seems different is in just how many of these cases what fell apart needed to fall apart:

A pursuit of a PhD 9 years on, without much progress but at great expense (and opportunity cost). A business that’s been making everyone miserable but held together–with sweat and duct tape–just to postpone a much-feared failure. A friendship held together in much the same way. When these things fall apart, it can often feel like we’re falling apart.

Sometimes things need to fall apart

Because they’re making us miserable. Because they’re unsustainable. Because they’re hurtful to everyone involved. Because it’s time to move on. Because we need them to fall apart so we can make something new with the leftover pieces.

When we call something a catastrophe, we mean to convey destruction. Sure. But it also has a more nuanced meaning, embedded from its earliest use: In Greek tragedy, the catastrophic event is what initiates movement or resolution.

Maybe you think that’s Pollyanna-ish, but I think there’s more to it than just seeing the bright side: Often the catastrophe is the very thing that’s needed to initiate movement. Positive Psychology, a relatively new branch of psychology focusing on strengths rather than pathology, gives us the concept of “post-traumatic growth.” Transposing the language used in the diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (more often referred to by the initials as PTSD, and having evolved from the post-WWI phenomenon known as “shell-shock”), proponents of this growth-oriented concept do not wish to deny the very real suffering that can often follow trauma, but to highlight the importance of allowing room for growth.

This is also not to say that growth automatically follows tragic experiences, but rather that catastrophes allow for the possibility, if we’re open to it.