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After Great Pain

The World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, shortly after the collapse of the second tower. Photo: Wally Gobetz. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, shortly after the collapse of the second tower. Photo: Wally Gobetz. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

When I was little, my mother always told me that I had to be tough. “Terrible things will happen during your life,” she said. “I hope they are few and far between. But you’ve got to be strong enough to endure them and make it through. You’ve got to be one of the survivors.”

Last September 11 her words resonated hauntingly. Since then all of us have struggled through the disaster’s aftermath. It has not been easy. People who previously suffered depression and anxiety disorders have relapsed; people who never had these complaints have felt their minds betraying them for the first time. The rate of substance abuse has increased significantly, and so have the rates of domestic violence and child abuse.

A friend’s 5-year-old son asked her this summer whether the Empire State Building was now the tallest building in New York. She said that it was, and he said, “And if that falls down, then what will be the tallest?” For many of us, the things we used to experience as permanent suddenly now seem conditional. What if all the skyscrapers fall down? What if America gets contaminated with radiation? What if we all die from drinking our water? Many of us have been dealing with both posttraumatic stress and what I’d call pretraumatic stress: anxiety about the terrible things we think might happen but that we cannot control. Such anxiety and fear are all ordinary responses to horror, but the fact that they are ordinary does not make them acceptable. They require attention and treatment. (It’s ordinary that if you fall off a ladder you break your arm, but that doesn’t mean the broken arm should be ignored.)

Even before the attacks, I had begun trying to understand what makes some people into survivors. Working on a book about depression for five years, I traveled around the world interviewing men and women who had been through experiences of great pain. What I found, often, was that the period following a devastation is rougher than the devastation itself–that surviving is not contingent on a single moment of strong will and spirit and strength but on a sustained state of mind, unremitting across time. “Inside, it took all our energy just to have food and warmth,” a prison camp survivor in Russia explained to me. “When we came home again, that energy was freed up to search for meaning in our lives. It was then that we had to prove ourselves strong against death, by immersing our minds in the hidden strands of light that penetrated our darkness.”

The many impressive people with whom I spoke during this research talked about looking closely at the horror they’d been through and about turning their back on it. In China I met an artist who lived for two years during the Cultural Revolution in a flooded basement jail where he had no dry place to sleep and almost no food. He managed to secure 66 pieces of paper from the supply kept for forced written “confessions,” which he stitched into his padded coat, and during his imprisonment he covered them with almost-microscopic writing. He did not want to write about what was happening to him, about the terrible void into which he’d been cast. Instead he wrote out, during long sleepless nights, imaginary philosophical dialogues with great figures from history, including Tolstoy and Leonardo da Vinci. “By day I was a prisoner,” he explained to me. “By night I was a prince.”

A man I met from Rwanda insisted that one survives by looking forward. He told me how Western aid workers had tried to help people after the genocide by getting them to talk about what had happened, to be open and honest about their experiences. “And when people had finished these sessions of honesty,” he told me bitterly, “those who had endured the most awful suffering would go kill themselves. It was awful. We soon put a stop to that: Looking at what had happened was the worst possible way to make yourself live afterward.”

Victims of the Khmer Rouge, Security Prison 21 (S-21), Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Victims of the Khmer Rouge, Security Prison 21 (S-21), Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

A woman who had survived the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia spoke to me of forgetting as the first step toward recovery, and she described how she filled the heads of other victims with distractions to obliterate some small piece of “what they would never entirely forget.” She devoted herself unstintingly to the care of others who were needier than herself, eventually founding both an orphanage and a center for depressed women. This is how she saved, and continues to save, herself.

I talked to Inuit in Greenland who had been pulled by their dogs out of broken ice floes during winter hunting. “The only way to stay a hunter,” one said to me, “was to go back to where I’d nearly died, as soon as possible, and to go without incident across that same place. To get the sound of the breaking ice and the penetration of that fierce water out of my head.” Here the strength of a new reality had to subsume the agony of memory.

At the end of my journey, I found myself torn between the two schools of wisdom: the one that said you had to think hard about what you’d been through and the one that said you had to get away from the terrible realities you’d endured. I began to understand that, though people would tell me half their personal equation, there is actually always a balance to be struck between the remembering and forgetting. You can’t simply hide from the facts. Feelings that aren’t acknowledged, that aren’t felt, are dangerous explosions waiting to happen. Feelings that are re-experienced too vividly however, implode and are just as deadly. We’ve now moved beyond the old therapy idea that emotional repression is unhealthy and that you have to work through what’s happened by delving deeply into all your feelings. If your feelings are too awful, it’s best to keep them as much as possible at bay.

A year after the terror of September 11, the loss we suffered–like the personal loss of a single person you have loved–is something we have to integrate into ourselves, not something we can transcend and put behind us. Even if you think you have adjusted to the changed reality that follows a catastrophe, you may find yourself being regularly reshocked by the same episode. Eventually you realize that there is no adjusting to something so profoundly grim, that the disastrous losses are perpetual losses, that you will never return to the innocence that predated them.

Once we’ve balanced the remembering and forgetting, we need to concentrate on controlling what we can control and to try to let go of the things we can’t affect. A very limited part of our experience in the world is subject to our control, but we can make physical order in our own homes and we can accomplish goals in our work. We can avoid giving in to depression by availing ourselves of medications and psychotherapy. We can improve on how well we relate to the people around us. We can make deliberate, conscious lists of priorities. We can be nicer.

Helping people in greater need also gives us a feeling of control and purpose we might not otherwise be able to achieve, and is almost always an illuminating experience; I heard of its healing properties in every one of the exotic locations I visited. When you believe that you cannot stitch your own heart back together, go to work on the hearts of other people; there is no surer way to repair yourself than to repair them.

Perhaps the most difficult part of recovery is squeezing good out of the horror. Since we’re stuck with September 11, we should try to learn from it. We should live more fully in the present tense because we have been reminded how fragile our lives really are. We should remember those many cell-phone calls from the buildings and planes that were about to go down, and how much that repetitive cliche of three words meant to all the people who heard “I love you” before the final moment. We can become a nation more conscious of our own good fortune.

The best antidote to pain is happiness, even if it is someday to be defeated by another sadness, in turn to be enlivened by another joy, and on in an endless cycle. The Italian political theorist Antonio Gramsci said that social reformers should have pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will. This means that one must have the intellectual ability to see how bad things are and the emotional ability to look forward with hope. It’s a hard combination to sustain, but if you can do it, you can change your world.