Making Meaning and Finding Solace: Remembering 9-11
As we approach the tenth anniversary of the most destructive act of terrorism to take place on American soil, it will be natural for most Americans to recall where they were on September 11, 2001. Undeniably, 9-11 is a new generation’s somber equivalent to the John F. Kennedy assassination, the events of which are indelibly etched in the memories of those who experienced it.
As a clinician, I was taught that abusive and violent events shatter an individual’s assumptions of safety and benevolence about the world. The same is true for an event like a natural disaster or terrorist attack which impacts a group or an entire society and can result in a profound cultural upheaval. The psychological impact of 9-11 was greatest on those who witnessed the events, but due to repetitive and vivid footage of the attack, coupled with the uncertainty of future attacks, nearly half of Americans reported symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in the days following the attack.
How do people heal from trauma? Professionals state the tasks are to remember and mourn the loss of innocence and create a new relationship with ourselves in the world as we now understand it. The author Victor Frankl drew from his own experience as a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp to write Man’s Search for Meaning. He observed that those who were able to retain a sense of meaning in their experience were more likely to survive the hellish conditions. Likewise, in Nando Parrado‘s account of surviving a 1972 plane crash in the Andes mountains, he reflects that a determining factor between those who perished and survived was the ability to relinquish the world that existed before the plane crash and accept the grim reality of their new environment.
On that morning ten years ago, I remember the moment my colleague snapped on the break room television and I saw smoke pouring from the Twin Towers, a landmark inextricably linked to the world’s epicenter of wealth and power. Even though I didn’t yet know the full extent of the terrorist attack, I saw that image and remember thinking: things are not going to be the same. In the weeks following, I recall the solidarity among Americans, the compassion from world citizens, and having a vague notion that celebrity gossip would surely no longer consume the media landscape. Today, one looks around to see unprecedented vitriol between political camps, two costly and deadly wars, economic recession, and a cavalcade of reality television.
But I do know that the process of healing has its different stages, so I hope the long term impact of this national tragedy might eventually lead us to something greater than we could have envisioned before. Maybe we still need to grieve the loss of some things we can’t even name. I believe it most important to honor our memories and feel what needs to be felt. And as we remember the innocent victims and their families, we can connect with our community, gather our family around us, and continue to find solace in the small things that have always been meaningful.