Never ask: why me

Thoughts about resilience, with gratitude about my journey, as Thanksgiving is approaching

Written by Hesna Al Ghaoui, Fulbright alumna

Gratitude, pride, nostalgia, and lately a little sadness – I can identify all these emotions in myself when I think back to last November, celebrating one of the most important American holidays, Thanksgiving in California. We spent the whole Thanksgiving day in Redwood City with a family, who were kind enough to invite us and three other families on this special day to celebrate with them. Turkey, stuffing, potatoes with gravy and of course pumpkin pie – we could get a real taste of a traditional American Thanksgiving, even if only one of the present families was originally from the US. This was one of the most important impressions I had in California: the diversity, and the sensation of inclusion, especially in Berkeley, which was one of the most vibrant and interesting melting pot of people from all the places I have ever visited in the States before.

How did I end up with my family in Berkeley? I was lucky to spend an entire academic year at the UC Berkeley thanks to a Fulbright scholarship that I received in 2020, and which was postponed by a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Looking back at these turbulent times, now I think it was for the better to start my scholarship a bit later, as I had more time to prepare for the research I intended to do about resilience and posttraumatic growth. The goal of my Fulbright scholarship, which was also supported by another scholarship from the Rosztoczy Foundation, was to find answers to the following questions: what factors play the most significant role in the ways we cope with traumatic events? What are the shared qualities in personality, mindset or circumstances of those people who are able to thrive due to a challenging life event? Can we foresee – based on personality traits, psychological factors or other components – whether a person is capable of growing from a trauma? To find the answers, I was conducting over thirty in-depth interviews not only with trauma survivors, but also with scientists, psychologists, psychiatrists, social psychologists, neurologists and therapists – from all over the US.

Being an author, a journalist and a documentary filmmaker with a special interest in human behaviour and psychology, my goal with this research was to bring the different scientific theories and practices closer to people and give them tools which might help in reframing their difficult life events. As previously I worked as a foreign affairs reporter and a war correspondent, I think dealing with traumatic life events and finding ways to cope with them is extremely important, especially nowadays, when we are living in the state of multiple crisis, and we feel more insecure about the future than ever.

“Even when things got extremely difficult, I never asked: why me. I asked: what now? What happens next? What can tomorrow bring?”

“Even when things got extremely difficult, I never asked: why me. I asked: what now? What happens next? What can tomorrow bring?” – said Edith Eva Eger world-famous psychologist and therapist, author of the book The Choice, when I had the privilege to visit her in her home in San Diego. She always refused to identify herself as a victim, which seems to be a foundational stone in being able to heal and grow from a trauma. Her recollection of memories from the Nazi death camps, her exceptional personal and carrier path leading up to becoming a therapist, and her expertise in trauma and resilience is going to be a huge asset in my research.

I also had the chance to meet and film in-depth interviews with some of the most impactful psychologists in the world, like social psychologist Elliot Aronson, whose thoughts about cognitive dissonance, shame and inter-group tension (related to his Jigsaw method) show how creating a cooperative environment is inevitable if we want to raise resilient children and prevent future violence in schools.  I also had the chance to meet Carol Dweck professor of psychology at the university of Stanford, whose theory points out how growth mindset plays a vital role in the way we cope with traumatic life events.

Interview with Elliot Aronson

Apart from interviewing several well-known theorists, I met several practicing therapists and trauma experts and made in-depth interviews with brain researchers, sleep researchers, social psychologists, education experts, grief experts and child developmental experts. One of my most exciting visits was to the Center of Post Traumatic Growth in Sacramento, California, making an in-depth interview with the founder, Melinda Keenan, who has decades of accumulated knowledge and experience in the field. The center works mainly with veterans and first responders, and their approach to trauma work focuses on ‘moral injuries’. They believe that trauma is about broken relationships, so it shall be addressed not as an intrapersonal, but an interpersonal phenomenon.

I was also able to meet resilience and trauma experts who themselves suffered a major personal trauma and were open to talk about their recovery path from both personal and professional aspects. These interviews were also extremely valuable for my research.

Of course, this year meant a huge learning and growing opportunity for me, too, as despite the amazing cultural and professional experiences, I had my own challenges, as a mother, as a professional, as a person. Starting everything from scratch in a totally new environment, solving all the logistical difficulties without having a support network from family and friends, finding new routines and keeping old traditions with my children and husband was not always easy. I went through an identity-meltdown, too, after the first month, being surrounded by the top psychology professionals in the world.

As later I found out, my case was not unique, most Fulbrighters go through similar experiences, no matter how well-established they are in their carrier. Being thrown into a brand new professional and competitive environment, you get a new pair of glasses to see yourself and your knowledge. But I realized that this is a huge gift, because you get the chance to redefine and revaluate who you are, what you know, where you shall improve and what your experiences are worth, because many times you possess real treasures that you might have taken for granted or diminished, but others in a new environment look at it as a huge asset. It is a little bit like falling into pieces and then putting the puzzles back together – but the new picture you create of yourself will be a little different than the one you arrived with. And this procedure can be painful sometimes, but also uplifting many times, and it’s worth experiencing it as it’s a rare chance to experience this kind of a journey in yourself in adulthood. It definitely gives you extra resilience.

I can’t be grateful enough for this amazing opportunity for the Fulbright Committee, for the U.S. Department of State, for the Rosztoczy Foundation, for UC Berkeley IPSR and for my host professor, Iris Mauss. But my journey is not over yet: even though I will celebrate this year’s approaching Thanksgiving in Budapest, I feel lucky that thanks to this year I made strong and meaningful friendships with several people in Berkeley and in the Bay Area, which will be long lasting connections. Not only my friendships and professional cooperations will continue, but hopefully I will be able to pass on my knowledge to other people as well. Since I came home in July 2022, I was asked to give numerous talks and interviews about my experiences and my research topic. It reinforces my belief that everything I learned about resilience, posttraumatic growth and emotional adaptation is so important to talk about now, in the very sensitive, changing and seemingly uncontrollable era we live in. I hope that with my new book that I just started to write I will be able to pass on the knowledge that I gained, not only in Hungary, but to many people all around the world.