What We Can Learn from 9/11

9/11, grief

In 2011, we commemorated the 10th anniversary of the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. There were lots of media remembrances, articles, special shows, programs, editorials and many other things to remind us what took place. Personally, I didn’t need them. I lived through that day ten years ago and can vividly remember what happened. I recall the initial confusion over what was occurring and the fear over what an attack on our country would mean. My husband works for the government and was downtown in the federal building. Until I was able to speak with him, I remember being scared for his safety because, at the time, none of us knew where the attacks would end and rumors were rampant. Because of that very fear and uncertainty, the university where I was a professor made the decision to shut down for the day. I sat in my 7th floor office and watched as the streets immediately filled with cars carrying students racing home to be with their families and loved ones. It was an odd sight, almost like watching a crowd of people fleeing a riot. I’m sure New Yorkers saw something similar, albeit on a scarier and much larger scale.

Like probably much of the country, my family and I sat around the television watching footage of the planes hitting the Twin Towers and of their collapse. We listened as the media struggled to figure out what happened. It was very difficult to know what to do, so I was grateful when a local television station asked me to participate in a live mental health hotline. Craving some way to help, I immediately agreed, little imagining the surreal experience it would be. I drove from the suburbs into the heart of downtown Dallas, a trip that September 11th anniversary, griefshould have taken quite a while because of all the rush hour traffic. Much to my surprise, there were hardly any cars on the road. When I (inevitably) got lost, there weren’t stores open to ask for directions. Dallas was a ghost town. While watching apocalyptic movies is kind of fun, seeing firsthand what a thriving metropolis looks like when it’s almost completely shutdown was fairly terrifying. Again, it was a scene reminiscent of New York and perhaps other large cities across the country as well.

Working the hotline was an emotional roller coaster. There were funny moments as a number of students called in, their only concern whether school would be cancelled the next day. There were weird moments as a few people wanted to expound on their theories of how the terrorists got on the planes. But overwhelmingly, the people who called the hotline that night were dealing with fear and sadness. A lot of parents called wanting to know how best to comfort their frightened children. Others were confused about what had happened. Then there were the people who called to talk about their grief over all the lives that were lost and the hopes that were destroyed. Those were the hardest calls to manage because that’s what I was feeling too. The television station itself was quite busy covering the most historic news of the decade, but instead of the feeling of excitement in the air, there was a pall that we all felt. It was the uncomfortable feeling of a country in limbo, of not knowing what really happened or where we were going to go.

Fear and sadness: those feelings are what will stick in my mind about September 11, 2001. Fear and sadness are necessary parts of our emotional repertoire, but they sure don’t feel very good. In fact, they are so uncomfortable and make us feel so vulnerable that they often get covered up by the secondary emotion of anger. One of the great things about anger is that it can make you feel powerful and, done correctly, righteous. Anger can also give you the motivation to do things you might not have done otherwise. Consequently, with its sense of muscle, justice and energy, anger does have some good byproducts. However, it does come with quite a few negative side-effects as well. Anger tends to make you stupid, because decisions are made solely from a place of emotion and not with what Marsha Linehan calls the “wise mind.” Reason is not part of the equation. Anger also keeps you at high heat, and eventually you get burnt. Thus, while anger can be productive, the problem comes when you keep living there — and that is what I think we’ve done since that fateful day in September over 10 years ago.

Nine days after September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush told the country, “Our grief has turned to anger and anger to resolution. Whether we bring our enemies to justice or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done,” and that’s been our continuing theme. Instead of dealing with our vulnerability and working through our feelings of sadness and fear, we’ve become lost in anger. Our civic discourse has turned dismissive and rude at best and violent at worst. We went from being bound together by grief on the days following September 11th to tearing ourselves apart with discord and dominance.

Ten years is too long to let ourselves be adrift in an emotional wasteland. Emotions are like waves in the ocean. If you let them roll in and over you, the strength of the waves may momentarily knock you off your feet but they will eventually dissipate. If however they are not allowed to crash upon the shore, they only get stronger until you have a tsunami of emotion from which you may not recover. In other words, deal with emotions before they deal with you. So it’s time to deal with our fear and sadness before it’s too late. How do we do this? Well, we have some good examples.

In October 2006, the Amish in Pennsylvania experienced their own example of terror when a lone gunman shot 10 girls in a schoolhouse. Five of the girls died, and the gunman committed suicide. Although the act of violence is becoming sadly all too familiar, what was amazing about this situation was the response of the Amish community. They had ample justification for seeking vengeance, yet they did not. Instead, they comforted the gunman’s family and even set up a charitable fund for them. Marie Roberts, the widow of the gunman, wrote in an open letter to the Amish community, “Your love for our family has helped to provide the healing we so desperately need. Gifts you’ve given have touched our hearts in a way no words can describe. Your compassion has reached beyond our family, beyond our community, and is changing our world, and for this we sincerely thank you.” To those who criticized the Amish response as denying the existence of evil and giving forgiveness when it was not deserved, Amish scholars explained that forgiveness doesn’t undo the tragedy or excuse the sin but instead provides a first step toward a more hopeful future. In other words, the act of forgiveness gave the Amish a way to work through their fear and grief in a way that was not destructive.

The Norwegians also offer another way to deal with overwhelming tragedy. After the July 22, 2011 bombing and shooting that left 77 people dead, the government and Norwegian leadership responded with peace. Norway is a hard country in which to live. It spends six months of the year in darkness and its winters can be treacherous. The Norwegian people know that unity is necessary for their very existence. Perhaps that is why their public gatherings have centered on calls for togetherness. Speeches by Norway’s Prime Minister, Jan Stoltenberg, have included statements like, “This is your shield against violence, this is your sword: Faith in human life, faith in human value” and “It has been said: ‘An eye for an eye.’ But I tell you, do not fight those who will do you evil… Evil can kill a person, but it can never defeat a people… This is a march for community, a march for democracy, and a march towards tolerance.” In short, do not live within your anger but instead find a way to process your grief and move forward.

Americans are a very strong people. We are accustomed to setting a course and grimly living up to our determination (just ask Hitler), so I know we can do this. We must find a way to get out of our anger, process our vulnerable feelings and move forward. If we do not, then Osama bin Laden may have succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.

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