When we choose to better ourselves, we’re choosing to change, and change requires sacrifice. It was Paulo Coelho, the Brazilian novelist and philosopher, who wrote, “When we love, we always strive to become better than we are. When we strive to become better than we are, everything around us becomes better, too.”
The quote is from Coelho’s novel, The Alchemist, in which a young boy, Santiago, upends his life to search for treasure in a faraway land, only to realize at the end of his journey that the treasure he was looking for was right where he started all along.
The story follows a similar narrative arch to the Hero’s Journey, as told by Joseph Campbell in The Hero With a Thousand Faces. For Santiago, the hero’s revelation is that growth happens when we aim for it—and that reaching this conclusion, gaining this wisdom, requires sacrifice.
Life, much like the hero’s journey, is full of challenges. To improve, we have to face change, and change, like any journey, requires leaving things we don’t need behind. If we really want to improve, it will happen, because everything we need to make it happen we already possess.
For example, in his novel, Coelho warns against giving into fear: “If you do,” he writes, “you won’t be able to talk to your heart.” This is something every survivor should hear, since love has a very special meaning for us, and that is: love is the opposite of fear. The healing process—the survivor’s journey—begins with love. We search for it, endlessly it seems, only to find that it was right here inside of us all along.
On the hero’s journey, fear is the cave, primeval chaos, oblivion. Love is the opposite. Love is how we survive in the face of it, and how we keep going in spite of it. With love comes patience and forgiveness and perseverance. With love, we learn to trust ourselves and each other. With love, we learn to chase our dreams, acknowledge our strengths, and celebrate our achievements. With love, we acknowledge the toxic forces that weigh us down and leave us to whither in the abyss.
There’s no one map or blueprint for surviving complex trauma—it takes time, it’s a work in progress, and every experience is unique. But life’s journey is full of storms and we have to adapt—and we will! Because life is also full of beauty and promise, and we deserve those experiences, too.
Adapting after trauma takes intention, steadfast determination, a clear sense of purpose and direction. While it’s important to seek medical care and expert advice if and when we need it, to stay the course, we also need the ability to make sense of our lives, to better ourselves. For that to happen, we need access to clear, reliable, and objective information—we need evidence. And this is why we need an evidence-based approach to learning about mental health.
What exactly does “evidence-based” mean? Well, it points to a few things—for one, science. Oxford defines evidence as “the available body of facts or information indicating whether a belief or proposition is true or valid.” Basically, evidence proves that something is real.
For example, we know our brain is an organ (and a complex one at that!) because we have evidence to support it. And there’s a growing body of research that suggests the brain and body are connected in ways we hadn’t really thought of before. By using evidence to ground our work and beliefs, we can build reliable knowledge around mental health, and develop decision-making tools to help us understand how these interactions affect how we think, how we feel, and how we act on those feelings. As the saying goes, knowledge is power.
Life is full of challenges—storms we have to weather. Surviving them takes courage, flexibility and focus—it takes energy. It’s the storms we’re not ready for that take the most from us. If knowledge is power, and evidence provides the basis for that knowledge, then the power of evidence becomes clear. We don’t know when those storms will come, but with more evidence we’ll have the energy to weather them for when they do.
This is where the “knowledge is power” principle can work to our advantage. The more we understand why something is happening, the easier it is for us to accept it and respond to it. Understanding why doesn’t just happen—it takes intentionality and self-awareness, two skills we can use to master the journey.
I believe science provides a respite from the chaos. Using the available evidence and our own observations of the world to test our assumptions about it provides the structure and logic we need to stay balanced when emotions run high.
Natural systems principles—diversity and ecology, mutual support and reciprocity, changing seasons and the circular economy—can all help to elucidate the value of our lived experience. And, going deeper, the phenomenology of emotions—perception, imagination, desire—can provide a conceptual pathway to foster cultures of co-creation and belonging.
By using the available evidence (the facts and information that validate our feelings and assumptions) we’re better equipped to face life’s challenges as they occur. Having an intimate knowledge of the terrain will serve us well on the journey.
By using the science of communication—by observing what happens inside and outside of ourselves to understand why we think, feel, and act the way we do—we can work to better ourselves and make meaningful change on the journey to recovery and transformation. Sacrifice—that’s what this journey is all about.