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.