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Five Years After

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It’s hard to believe that five years have passed since the horrific events of September 11, 2001, unfolded before our eyes. Even if we didn’t lose friends or family on that day, many of us developed a personal version of post-traumatic stress disorder from gazing at the cratered field in Pennsylvania and the smoking gouge in the Pentagon, and most of all from watching those towers fall again and again. Shaken to the core, we lost a sense of security, calm, and optimism that has been hard to recapture in the years since.

After that calamitous day, many of us worried about how our nation could avoid being a target of aggression. Some people panicked about the difficulty of keeping their loved ones safe from terrorists. Our defenses went up at home, at school, at work, on the road.

On a visceral level, 9/11 made a lot of people wonder what was really important in their lives. Knowing that on any given day you or your loved ones might not come home again, even while living or working in a “safe” town or profession, you may have weighed how to enjoy more fully the relationships and activities that meant a lot to you.

Perhaps you vowed to change your life by working smarter, adopting healthier habits, spending more time with the people you love, or pursuing a longtime dream. At the very least, you may have resolved to develop an estate plan, a succession plan, or both.

Five years after the shattering events of 2001, what has happened to those vows?

If you’re still living and working the same old way, you’re not alone. Many of us remain stuck in our former patterns. We may have tried to do too much too fast, or didn’t have a plan to make change happen. But in many cases, the trauma of what we witnessed simply locked us in a deep freeze. Disturbed by the cataclysmic shift in our view of the world, we retreated to the familiarity of our old comfort zone.

Today, the world is not any safer. If anything, it seems that more dangers have arisen: killer hurricanes, train bombers, North Korean nukes, bird flu, the return of widespread violence in the Middle East. It’s impossible to avoid the anxiety and trauma produced by these perils, but you may be able to use your fears in a good way to improve the future for yourself, your loved ones, your clients, and generations to come.

Getting Over the Past

The events of September 11, coupled with recurring images of death and destruction in Baghdad, Beirut, Darfur, Haifa, and Mumbai, to name just a few, have left many of us “traumatized and dissociated,” in the words of neurologist and author Robert Scaer.

In an article by Joseph Hart in the July-August 2006 Utne magazine, Scaer points out that the very institutions of our culture–schools, courts, government agencies, even the medical establishment–can be traumatizing. Have you ever been stopped by the highway patrol, called back for another medical diagnostic test, or invited to send more data to the IRS? In the face of fairly common occurrences like these, the physiological effects on the brain and body–flight, fight, or freeze–are virtually identical to the physical effects of being tortured.

Moreover, despite our society’s abundance, many of us labor under punishing life stresses on a daily basis. We spend volumes of energy on our work, children, parents, and homes. We coach, chauffeur, raise funds for deserving causes, and for relaxation we run on treadmills. No wonder so many of us feel drained! As Scaer argues, “Virtually everyone in [our] modern society is traumatized.”

If you feel paralyzed by the idea of shaping the future, this cumulative anxiety, uncertainty, and pressure may well be the reason why. But dealing with trauma can actually be a way to energize and transform ourselves. We’re called on to repair what was broken, in ourselves or in the larger world. This can be much more empowering than living a life where adversity never happens. Remember Nietzsche’s dictum: “Whatever does not kill me makes me stronger.”

Roughly half the people who have faced adversity say that the experience improved their lives, according to an article by Kathleen McGowan in the March/April 2006 issue of Psychology Today. “Those who weather adversity well are living proof of one of the paradoxes of happiness: we need more than pleasure to live the best possible life,” says McGowan. Psychologists call the process “post-traumatic growth.”

In fact, the only way we grow wiser, more insightful, compassionate, altruistic, and creative may be by coping with hard times, because it takes these traumatic conditions to break through our normal ego-protecting armor and force us to change. Western societies’ emphasis on sparing people any adversity, pain, or anxiety may paradoxically cause us to miss out on “the rich, full joy that comes from a meaningful life,” McGowan says.

This can include a spiritual dimension that may have been lacking before. Utne’s Hart quotes Gina Ross, author of Beyond the Trauma Vortex: The Media’s Role in Healing Fear, Terror, and Violence (North Atlantic Books, 2003), who said that trauma is one of the four paths to spirituality, along with prayer, meditation, and sexuality. (That last one’s something to think about!)

American culture preaches the virtues of picking yourself up after a hard knock, dusting yourself off, and starting all over again. Of course, this is not as easy as it sounds, but if and when you can move forward past the fear, anxiety, and sadness of a past trauma, growth can occur.

The Value of Adversity

Five years after 9/11, I would suggest asking yourself some searching questions about how this day and its aftermath affected you. Encourage your clients to do the same.

It may be that your initial reaction was hasty and incomplete. For example, some clients ran out and bought a lot of life insurance instead of drawing up or updating their wills. When people are panicked, they often take any quick action to quiet their fears. If you (or your clients) have been in the grip of post-traumatic stress, can you let go of it now to reassess your beliefs, your values, and your deepest desires for the future, in order to make a plan that will move you toward your higher goals?

For many of us, letting go isn’t easy. Personally, I tend to be a high-anxiety type, prone to fretting about real problems or potential threats. Years ago, I took a firewalking workshop where I actually walked barefoot on hot coals without getting burned. To my surprise, this achievement helped reduce my anxiety about physical threats a great deal.

Overcoming adversity often makes people less fearful, McGowan points out, in spite of the horrific experiences they may have endured. “They are surprised by their own strength, confident that they can handle whatever else life throws at them,” she says.

You may not necessarily want to take up firewalking to master your fears, much less swing on a flying trapeze as philosopher Sam Keen advocates (“What was terror becomes joy,” says Keen, author of Fire In the Belly: On Being a Man (Bantam, 1992). But learning to accept and overcome fear, rather than being paralyzed by it, can transform the fearful experience into a source of strength and power. Arizona Senator John McCain, a former Navy flier who spent five hellish years as a prisoner of war after being shot down over North Vietnam, says, “I now know the difference between what’s important and what isn’t.”

However, “letting go” doesn’t mean avoiding larger issues that disturb you as you contemplate the state of the world today. Volunteering to help other people here or abroad, becoming more politically active, or mentoring younger people may be just what you need to transform feelings of powerlessness into personal fulfillment.

Engaging with a spiritual or community network of like-minded individuals can also help you and your clients feel less stressed and alone, more connected and invigorated.

Shaping the Future

If you’re able to step back and look at the bigger picture now, consider whether September 11 changed you. What was most traumatic and earthshaking about it? Did it affect the way you live your life? Your relationships? Your work? Your interests? Your vision of the future? If you set goals for yourself five years ago, to what extent did you achieve them?

If you reached those goals, there may be some conclusions you can draw from examining your success:

  • How did you do it? Was it alone, or with support? With a plan, or just ad lib?
  • Did you get as far as you wanted to go? Should you consider a “stretch” goal to suit your present-day needs?
  • Is there something more you want or need to achieve? Maybe now is an appropriate time to honor the lessons of 9/11 by learning how to live a fuller life or become a more effective advisor. Should you move toward a better balance between work and leisure? Or should you do more to leave “footprints” in your community and beyond? For example, Warren Buffett’s business success may not change the world, but his philanthropy almost certainly will.

On the other hand, if you didn’t get anywhere on a goal you set five years ago, think about why it didn’t happen:

  • What got in the way?
  • Is it still worth achieving? If so, are you ready to work on overcoming what held you back before?
  • Have other goals become more important? (See the “Where will you go from here?” sidebar to help define them.)

Once you’ve identified changes you’d like to make in your life, consider how to improve the odds of succeeding.

Sidebar: Making Change Happen

To overcome physical obstacles in the way of reaching a goal, a plan is essential. For example, if you’ve set a goal of cutting back on your workload, your plan might include investing in time-saving technology; hiring an assistant, a paraplanner, or another planner; outsourcing chores that don’t add much value to client relationships, or referring out time-intensive clients who are unprofitable or outside your preferred area of expertise.

Overcoming psychological obstacles can be more difficult. People don’t develop new habits all at once; it’s a process that involves as many as six steps, according to psychologist and author James Prochaska. (See “A Change of Heart” in May 2005 Investment Advisor.) If you’ve established a goal that requires unfamiliar new behavior, be prepared to work through most or all of the stages he has identified:

  1. In Precontemplation, you’re still in denial that you need to change. (You’re probably past this stage already.)
  2. In the Contemplation phase, you’re aware of a problem but rationalize that it’s not serious enough to force you to change. To move out of this phase, explore whether your current behavior really serves you well. A trauma can also shock you into willingness to change.
  3. In the Preparation stage, you make a commitment to taking a specific course of action and rehearse in your mind how you will follow through.
  4. In the Action stage, you actually start a new pattern of behavior. Support from family, friends, or fellow strugglers can be very helpful.
  5. In Maintenance, you establish habits to reinforce your new behavior, incorporating strategies to reward progress and avoid backsliding.
  6. In the Termination stage, the new habit has become so ingrained that you don’t need any special effort to keep it up.

Beginning a new behavior or eliminating an old habit is often a bumpy trip, fraught with anxiety. But the rewards at the end of the journey can be tremendously satisfying.

Sidebar: After 9/11: A Change of Life

Five years ago, Kathryn Nusbaum, now managing director of the financial planning firm Middle America Planning in Mt. Lebanon, Pennsylvania, had just gone back to work at Morgan Stanley in midtown Manhattan, leaving her new baby with a nanny. When the attack came on September 11, her agonized fear for her husband, Robert, who worked in the World Financial Center, just next door to the World Trade Center, paralleled his horror at seeing the twin towers collapse as people jumped to their death.

With no phones working, it took Kathryn and Robert endless hours to walk home to their small apartment in midtown Manhattan near the United Nations and make sure that each other, and their baby, were all right. That night, they took in 15 people who had nowhere else to go.

In the next few days, Kathryn says, they went to several funerals for people they knew who had been killed in the attack. Nonetheless, they recall, it was an inspirational time. New Yorkers opened their doors to each other and pulled together in other amazing ways. Through the Financial Planning Association, Robert, then a senior financial analyst in Merrill Lynch’s Investment Management Group, volunteered financial advice to families of the 9/11 victims.

Although dealing with the aftermath of this tragedy was difficult at times, the Nusbaums embarked on a deeply soul-searching process about what was important to them and what kind of life they wanted to have. After carefully researching the best place to live, they moved to Pittsburgh and started their own financial planning firm.

Five years after 9/11, Kathryn believes the traumatic experience was immensely valuable. “I certainly got to a much better place in my life,” she says. “I feel a much greater appreciation of all the good things in life.”

While September 11, 2001, was a horrific, life-changing event for most of us, it’s important not to remain frozen in shock. Instead, we need to grasp this opportunity to will ourselves into growth and renewal.

There is much truth in the Serenity Prayer attributed to theologian Reinhold Niebuhr: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”

We can’t guarantee ourselves a safe future, but to some extent we can control what we do with the time given to us. In memory of a catastrophe that brought out the best in so many people, let’s take stock of what really matters to us and what legacy we want to leave to our families, our clients, and our communities.

Olivia Mellan, a speaker, coach, and business consultant, is the author with Sherry Christie of The Advisor’s Guide to Money Psychology. You can e-mail Olivia at [email protected].

(See complete coverage of 9/11: Ten Years After on AdvisorOne.)


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