The following blog originally appeared on April 11, 2013. At the request of Dr. Renata Nero, it is being reposted in memory of the extraordinary life of Mr. Nelson Mandela.
July 18, 1918 – December 5, 2013
A Lesson in Posttraumatic Growth
And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God. Romans 12:2
Earlier this year, a great man was hospitalized for a recurring respiratory problem. Some speculate that his current health challenge is related to his imprisonment where for 18 years he was confined to a small cell and forced to do hard labor in a lime quarry. Oddly enough, this same lime quarry and small prison cell may have prepared him to lead a nation. This great man is Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, the first democratically elected president of South Africa.
In 1964, Nelson Mandela arrived on Robben Island to serve a life sentence. He along with other co-defendants were accused of plotting to overthrow South Africa’s apartheid regime and convicted of sabotage. His time in prison easily could have spiraled into a life-sentence filled with bitterness, unforgiveness, and hopelessness. Instead it was turned into a series of opportunities for Mr. Mandela to strengthen his commitment to seeking justice and radically transforming the lives of those around him.
One of the opportunities he seized while in prison was establishing a “university”. This “university” was secretly housed in a cave and was beyond the view of the prison guards. The prison guards intended for the cave to be used as a restroom for prisoners working in the lime quarry. Instead, in this unlikely place, Mr. Mandela established a school where history and politics, among other subjects, were taught to fellow prisoners who had little to no formal education prior to being imprisoned at Robben Island.
Furthermore, despite being confined to a small cell where he slept on the floor, Mr. Mandela used this as an opportunity to learn from the prison guards. He entered into debates with them and studied their worldview, history and language. In so doing, he was in a stronger position to form a coalition government with all South Africans once he was released from prison and elected to the highest office in the land. This was yet another way Mr. Mandela transformed his prison sentence into preparation for the presidency.
Romans 12:2 instructs believers to take a Godly perspective when it comes to considering life’s circumstances. In Mr. Mandela’s case, he took a constructive approach when dealing with injustice. As a result, he saw new opportunities he would have missed otherwise, developed relationships with the prison guards he could have viewed as “the enemy”, and became a symbol of strength and courage to people around the world. Conversely, the worldly way of dealing with injustice is to vow revenge, retaliate and harbor unforgiveness. This clearly is contrary to the Word of God. Well, what about those persons who do not subscribe to biblical teaching? Is there a psychological correlate to support this biblical teaching? The answer is “yes” and is found in the area of posttraumatic growth research.
Posttraumatic growth (PTG) research is the systematic study of how adversity has the potential to lead to positive change. Examples of positive change that may result from a traumatic event include the following: 1) finding opportunities and possibilities in the midst of the crisis; 2) developing a closer identifcation with those who suffer; 3) appreciating life more fully; 4) discovering a new level of personal or inner strength and 5) deepening convictions or spiritual beliefs (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 2004).
In closing, there are PTG lessons all around us and one need not be a world leader in order to experience growth through adversity. By choosing to look at and respond to painful life circumstances in a constructive way, there is the potential to exceed the quality of life enjoyed prior to the crisis. Finally and not surprisingly, the biblical imperative for believers to renew one’s mind is not just good for spiritual growth but for psychological well-being as well.
Tedeschi, R. G. and Calhoun, L. G. (2004). Posttraumatic growth: Conceptual foundations and empirical evidence. Psychological Inquiry. 15 (1), 1-8.