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Friday, January 11, 2013

Transforming Tragedy Into Inspiration

August 1, 1963 was just another day for many people. Sad, interesting, and inspiring things happened. For Barbara Streisand it was a landmark week. She was performing her first gig in Las Vegas, opening for Liberace at the Riviera Hotel.


Poet Theodore Roethke had a heart attack in his friend's pool that day and died; The Beatles Book Monthly magazine debuted with 80,000 copies printed; and the movie Lassie's Great Adventure went into wide release.

August 1, 1963 was also the day tragedy struck Jill Marie Patten and her parents in their Seattle hometown. On that day a 22-year-old mail carrier stabbed 12-year-old Jill 14 times in the chest and abdomen during an attempted rape.

Fortunately, Jill lived and returned home after a brief hospital stay.

That's where the public version of Jill's story ends. That's where the door closes, the general public issues a collective sigh, and life goes on.

It's the same with most personal tragedies, be it the death of a loved one, a divorce, or a serious illness. People show up during the early days of the event. They bring food. They bring tissues and shoulders to cry on. They listen, and sometimes try to offer helpful suggestions.

Then time goes on, and they return to the daily details of their lives, and the one suffering the tragedy is left alone to cope and move forward. No matter how much his friends care they likely cannot feel his pain. They do not magically awake and call him at 2 a.m. when he is wide awake and angry, or afraid, or so deep in grief that his belly feels like it's about to burst.

For Jill and her family the healing process likely had only begun. The nightmares, the anger, the feelings of helplessness, and maybe shame and guilt.

But at some point Jill's parents, both psychiatrists, got inspired. They found out that the man who hurt their daughter had been troubled and had tried to get help before the attack. Maybe if he had received that help he wouldn't have hurt their child.

Jill's parents decided to do what they could to prevent the same thing from happening to someone else's child. They gathered friends and acquaintances and started the Seattle Crisis Clinic (now known as the King County Crisis Clinic), one of the country's oldest telephone crisis lines.

The Clinic has run seven days a week, 24 hours a day since 1964. The volunteers and staff answer calls from suicidal and homicidal people and provide referrals to an array of community services.

Like most things the Seattle Crisis Clinic isn't perfect, and it hasn't stopped suicides or homicides, but it has provided a place for troubled people to be heard. It has harnessed the power of community. It has reached out to people who may not have another outlet for their sorrow, their anguish, or their rage.

The Crisis Clinic is also example of how tragedy can inspire people to create something beautiful. The creation doesn't have to be complex or big, and the tragedy or crisis that inspired it doesn't have to be what is typically considered catastrophic.

Have you ever had a crisis that inspired you to create something beautiful? Or maybe you haven't thought about it. It's not too late.