St. Ignatius Loyola: A Case Study in Posttraumatic Growth

Posted in: Alpha Sigma Nu

By Lennis G. Echterling, Ph.D. (Rockhurst `68), 2020 Magis Medal winner 

On 20 May 1521, Ignatius Loyola, a combatant in the Battle Pamplona, was gravely wounded when a cannonball shattered his right leg. He survived the life-threatening injury, but he then had to endure an excruciating series of unsuccessful operations, followed by months of recuperation and isolation. When he finally completed his lengthy convalescence, Loyola remained battle scarred and, although an expert dancer in his youth, walked with a limp for the rest of his life.

Nearly 500 years later, Loyola’s experience has striking parallels with today’s countless victims of war. Millions have suffered both physical and psychic wounds, displaying the classic symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)—flashbacks, nightmares, social withdrawal, and a profoundly negative mood. However, Loyola’s life provides us with an inspiring case study of posttraumatic growth (PTG), a recent concept in psychology. We are discovering that many trauma survivors are resilient. Somehow, they are able to achieve positive transformation, transcendence, and dramatic personal growth while they engage in the challenging, and often painful, process of resolving their crises. A survivor may eventually bounce back after a trauma, but a thriver, such as Loyola, can reach even greater heights of PTG.

Studies of PTG have found that thrivers experience profound changes in their perceptions of themselves, their relationships with others, and their philosophy of life. These benefits include feeling more confident, becoming more self-reliant, feeling more compassion for humanity, appreciating life more deeply, and experiencing a more profound sense of spirituality.

As a psychologist, I have had the honor of working with people confronted by many different crises.  Loyola’s life epitimizes the spiritual journey of PTG and he especially reminds me of my work with survivors of landmines, the modern-day equivalent of cannonballs, in the Middle East. The lessons that I have learned from them were inspiring. I’ll share just one of the many stories that I treasure. In a gathering of landmine survivors, one young woman revealed her own secret longing.  Although she could walk on her prosthetic leg, she had not danced since stepping on a landmine. She had yearned to once again move with poise and rhythm, but dismissed her wish as childish and unrealistic. That evening, a group of women gathered in her room to offer encouragement. Adorned with a stylish headscarf for the special occasion, she composed herself, flashed a radiant smile, and proceeded to gracefully perform a traditional dance.

We are now immersed in the world-wide crisis of the pandemic. This viral catastrophe already has left in its wake countless medical casualties, tragic losses of life, social turmoil, school closings, economic chaos, racial inequalities, and quarantines for millions of people. We are encouraged to stay at home and keep our distance from others to prevent contracting this highly contagious disease. COVID-19 has reminded us that human contact can be deadly. However, Ignatius Loyola reminds us that deep and abiding attachments with our fellow human beings can promote spiritual well-being.  Like dancers, we have many ways to reach out, both emotionally and spiritually, to others without making close physical contact. We can follow Loyola’s example in using this time to shelter in place as we contemplate his moving, rhythmic, and graceful prayer, the Suscipe:

Take, O Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my whole will. Thou hast given me all that I am and all that I possess; I surrender it all to thee that thou mayest dispose of it according to thy will. Give me only thy love and thy grace; with these I will be content and will have no more to desire.