According to Dr. Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor, psychiatrist, and the founder of Logotherapy, “Being human always points, and is directed, to something, or someone, other than oneself—be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself—by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love—the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself.” (Frankl, 1946). But what is self-transcendence? Self-transcendence may seem easy enough for someone who is thriving, empowered, or in a position of privilege, but how do individuals in the midst of suffering and marginalization uncover meaning, or the desire to help others despite the challenges they face? My research study focused on exploring the intrinsic resources of a vulnerable and marginalized youth population: youth in foster care.
More than 200 young adults with experience in foster care, ages 20 and 21, were interviewed about life purpose, grief and loss, and inspiration. Many of these young adults discussed personal adversities that required courage, strength, and self-transcendence. They often used the words “traumatic,” “heartbreaking,” and “horrible” to discuss the experience of being separated from parents, siblings, extended family, and friends. Because only 1% of children enter foster care due to death losses, most children in the foster care system are confronted with non-death losses (e.g. the loss of living family members, the loss of their home, the loss of stability, the loss of a sense of security; Mitchell, 2016) when they enter foster care. These non-death losses, too, can result in sadness, confusion, anger, anxiety, and despair.
One of the most startling findings from this study related to ambiguous loss (Boss, 1999) and disenfranchised grief (Doka, 1989). Participants such as a young woman named Ebony (1) often discussed missing their living siblings and parents—an ambiguous loss. She said, “At the beginning of going into the system, it was hard. I was, like, eight years old and heartbroken. You miss fussing with your [siblings], and when thunderstorms come, you’d go run, you’d get in their bed ‘cause you’re scared… It tore me down, and I end up getting shipped off by myself. I just started to have to learn life by myself at eight. And so it was just kinda… it was heartbreaking.” Sadly, some youth, such as Jasper, reported that their grief was never addressed or enfranchised while in foster care “I felt like nobody acknowledged… you know, that, that loss that I had,” he said.
Reports by youth in foster care suggest that many of them drew upon intrinsic resources to cope with these adverse experiences. These resources included recognizing and acknowledging one’s inner strength and capacity, connecting with a higher power for wisdom and guidance, and learning from past “mistakes” and/or experiences. Comments included:
“I’ve been through so much. I’m not just gonna just let my life just fall, just go downhill. I’m not gonna make my life mean nothing.”
“I’ve been through way too much, so I’m gonna push forward because I’m gonna be somebody.”
“I have a plan…[God] has a plan for me. That’s what gives me reason to keep going, you know.”
“You gotta go through something to learn. You gotta go through something to overcome.”
“I overcome obstacles by myself. I just think about what I’ve been through, where I came from, and where I’m at now. And that’s the inspiration in itself.”
Despite the adversities they faced, many young people with foster care experience explored possibilities, meaning in adversity, self-transcendence, and hope for their future. When discussing his life purpose, a young man named Bobby stated, “My life purpose is to inspire other individuals like myself. I want to show people with physical and mental disabilities that they have a place in society.” Having a life purpose is important to Bobby because he doesn't want his life legacy to be “he just lived his life.” He wants to make an impact; he wants to make his “own personal stamp."
Delilah shares similar sentiments: “I feel like maybe I’ve been through what I’ve been through to teach someone else that they can be something, no matter what happens in life.” The overwhelming majority of participants stated that their purpose in life was to help others, particularly those who have been through similar experiences. Thanks to the hundreds of youth who participated in this study, Living in an Inspired World: Voices and Visions of Youth in Foster Care, consisting of 365 days of inspirational messages by youth in foster care for youth in foster care, was published by the Child Welfare League of America Press. (2) Transcending adversity, youth in foster care demonstrate that we do indeed live in an inspired world.
(1) The names of participants have been changed to protect their identities.
(2) This book was supported by the South Carolina Department of Social Services; the College of Social Work at the University of South Carolina; the Child Welfare League of America; and the John Templeton Foundation, The Enhancing Living Project administered by The University of Chicago.