The Tragedy of Lost Potential

young sad, desperate woman suffering depression looking thoughtful and frustrated

Recently I watched the Academy Award-Winning Movie from 1962, The Miracle Worker, starring Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke. It tells the story of how Helen Keller, born in 1880, suffered from an illness that left her both deaf and blind. Her family hit a crossroads moment when it was one of two options: to send a wild 10-year-old child to an asylum because she was so out of control or bring in a teacher for the deaf who was creative enough to reach into her darkness and silence to give her ways to communicate with the world. Eventually she graduated from college and became an American author, disability rights advocate, political activist and lecturer.

If her family had not brought the teacher into Helen’s life, she would have gone into an asylum and eventually died there, never having the opportunity to find her voice and have her brilliant mind opened up to the world. As I watched the movie, I thought how traumatized she was to be trapped in an inner world that isolated her from life, relationships and love.

With lost potential, we typically don’t know when it has been lost because their trauma has not been adequately addressed. I am overwhelmed with sadness and frustration when I think of all the people over time whose behaviors were labeled as confusing, dangerous, unacceptable and worthy of punishment when they were actually symptoms of unresolved trauma.

How many children struggle and then fail in school because schools are not prepared to address possible under-lying trauma issues? How many people have been sent to asylums who, with the right approach such as Anne Sullivan illustrated with her work with Helen Keller, might have become productive citizens or at the very least had not been internally and outwardly abused and even tortured because they did not get the help they deserved? How many people have been persecuted and then prosecuted, ending up in the prison system, because their trauma was not understood and they were given no opportunities to resolve it. How many people of color have experienced racism that has deprived them of the chance to reach untapped potentials to huge contributions to our world?

Hand writing Morality with marker, concept background

To me these are both philosophical and moral issues. We know so much about the nature of trauma. We know it is not the person’s fault when they show the symptoms of that trauma. So is there not an obligation for all of us as individuals and as a society to be kinder, more compassionate, patient, tolerant and focused on helping that child or adult have their trauma addressed?

What can we do beyond appreciating that so much human potential has been and continues being lost? Some recommendations:

  1. Consider when you see someone with difficult, challenging, even out of control behaviors that there may be trauma-related origins. You are seeing symptoms of an underlying deep emotional wounding, not the real person capable of so much more.
  2. Shift from being critical or punitive to being more patient, tolerant and compassionate
  3. Invite the person or those who care for them to find resources to address their unresolved trauma
  4. Appreciate that with these approaches the person is given the opportunity to reach their potential to live a meaningful life
  5. Never under-estimate the power of kindness and compassion. There may be other Helen Kellers out there that need someone to believe in them and give them the opportunity to break free from the confines of unresolved trauma.
Close up of pensive biracial man thinking having problems

Invitation for Reflection

  1. How often have you looked at people who are struggling and even failing in life to appreciate the potentials that are being lost because their underlying issues are not being addressed?
  2. How do you feel about this idea of lost potentials?
  3. What are some of the specific ways you can adjust your thinking and your behaviors to nurture potentials in others who are struggling? Remember that even one person helping another can change a life forever.

Diane Wagenhals, Director, Lakeside Global Institute


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One response to “The Tragedy of Lost Potential”

  1. Kerry Alexander- Bockhorn

    Thank Diane for your comment. I am a trauma survivor. Kindness matters. As well as strong boundaries. Good medical care and therapy are very important too.