The enlargement jar: experiments in post-traumatic growth

I’m reading a book by Kathleen Dean Moore called Wild Comfort. The book was supposed to be a book about happiness – What is happiness? Where do you find it? To answer these questions, Kathleen made herself a happy basket. Every time Kathleen felt happy – in that “deep-down, exhaling, head-back way” – she would write it down and put it in the happy basket. At the end of the year, she would review the pieces of paper, and this would form the basis of her little research project. I love the idea of a happy basket. I think right now, we could all do with a happy basket. Imagine sifting through a whole pile of memories from the time when we could hug our friends, dance wildly until 3am or simply smile at a stranger in the supermarket, or pass the marmalade without fear of contamination.  

A wonderful idea, but it comes with a hitch: life. Life happens. Life goes up, life goes down, life doesn’t go the way you planned, life screeches to an abrupt halt in the midst of a global pandemic and – more often than we would like to acknowledge – life ends. Kathleen describes how “events overtook me, death after death, and my life became an experiment in sadness”. I can relate to this. Lately, my life has also become an experiment in sadness. High Summer days were filled with death, trauma, grief and loss. Unfortunately, trauma isn’t new. Not for me, not for anyone. Trauma – once named – starts to emerge, to unfold, to take space, to take over and slowly, eventually, to subside. It’s never gone, but most of the time it takes the backseat. Sometimes it gives me helpful directions – ‘don’t go that way, I sense danger’. Sometimes it needs soothing, reassuring tones – ‘don’t worry, I’m in the driver’s seat now, I won’t let us crash’. But recently it’s taken a fancy to jumping up front and grabbing hold of the steering wheel. We’ve been doing some off-roading.  

A friend sent me Oliver Burkman’s final column on his insights into leading a fulfilled life. I liked it almost as much as the happy basket. He says, “when stumped by a life choice, choose “enlargement” over happiness”. This idea intrigued me. Happiness is a fickle friend after all. Like life, happiness comes, and happiness goes. I arrange to meet my friends, but then local lockdown hits. I eat cheesecake instead. It is undoubtedly delicious, but what am I left with? Low-density-lipid cholesterol and a sugar high that keeps my head whirring into the night. But what is “enlargement”? I’m guessing not the kind that comes from eating cheesecake. What would it be like to live life a little larger?   

As we live through a period of collective trauma, as a new wave is heading swiftly from the horizon and threatens to overwhelm us, I think these are interesting questions to be asking ourselves. If I can’t choose happiness, is it possible to choose growth? If I can’t choose growth, can I at least use this time to take rest, to take pause, to reflect on all that has to be let go of? Nature has a lot to teach. This is why Kathleen’s book is called “Wild Comfort”. She says, “sorrow is part of the earth’s great cycles, to feel sorrow is to float on the pulse of the earth… and connect somehow, to deeper sources of wonder and solace”. Is it possible grow roots of kindness that can reach the depths of my grief? I don’t know yet.  

Sorrow crops up a surprising amount in the happy basket, making Kathleen wonder if happiness and sadness are opposite emotions after all. One entry strikes me in particular: her friend Allen is diagnosed with a terminal muscle degeneration illness. People with this illness cry often and easily because it requires a lot of muscular effort to hold sorrow in. That, by itself, is interesting. She writes “people pulled their chairs closer to Allen, and there wasn’t anyone muscular enough to hold in their sadness, and that was important and good”. Maybe this is what enlargement looks like: the softness that comes when we let go, when we stop trying to hold it all together, when we open our hearts to the reality of our experience and in doing so become more connected to ourselves and to one another. Rarely are the concepts of “crying” and “good” weaved into the same sentence, but I agree wholeheartedly with Kathleen. Maybe the opposite of happiness is not sadness, but denial.

I don’t have a happy basket. But today I took a jar from my cupboard and labelled it “the enlargement jar”. Over the coming months, I’m going to write down any experience that stretches me. I don’t mean stretching in that pushy, demanding sort of way; I am all too familiar with driving myself to exhaustion seeking some unnamed and unattainable perfection. That is not what I mean. I mean stretching in that deep, releasing sort of way. I mean experiences that make me feel more soft and kind and loving and alive. Any time I choose courage over comfort, connection over cheesecake. Experiences that, once named, might start to emerge, unfold, take space and take over. I’m going to use this time of wintering to create a larder from which I can seed new life on the other side of darkness. Let my life become an experiment, not in happiness or sadness, but in something large enough to hold them both. Let the enlargement jar become an experiment in post-traumatic growth.

After all, Winter can’t last forever.  

After a period of time that feels appropriate, I’ll be taking the paper out of the enlargement jar and surveying and writing about what I’ve learned from this little experiment. If you’d like to join me – I’d love to hear from you. Share your story, share what’s in your jar, share how you can still be large in a time of restriction.  

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