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We Too are Heroes

The approaching anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center is on everyone's mind. This anniversary will beg many questions. Some we will answer. Some we will not.

One type of question many are asking is how well have we recovered, or what can we do to continue to move New York forward. Most mental health professionals hold the belief that nearly everyone can and should benefit from a deep and prolonged exploration of their personal reactions to September 11th, preferably in psychotherapy. This is misguided. Most people who are exposed to a traumatic event report that they cannot make sense of it, even years after it has passed. In essence, this very characteristic is what makes it traumatic. We visit ground zero over and over again because we cannot even grasp its magnitude let alone make sense of it. It cannot be denied that the 9/11 attack left deep psychological wounds on many people. But most of us are okay.

Research data show, in fact, that most people are usually quite resilient in the face of adversity. Trauma symptoms following an extremely difficult event are common and natural. We might even say normal. And initial trauma symptoms are not good predictors of later trauma; as relatively few people with symptoms go on to develop full-blown post-traumatic disorders.

Because the mental health profession has focused its attention so completely on trauma, we have tended to pay little attention to the factors that promote resilience. One of the few things we have learned, however, is that people who cope effectively with stressful events don't dwell on the painful memories of those events. Rather, they are positive and optimistic. They attend to other aspects of their lives. They can laugh. And they actively and concretely plan for the future. I'd say New Yorkers are doing okay on that score.

But there is another piece to consider. Research has also shown that people who recover most quickly seem to find some sort of benefit in having endured a stressful experience. They find a silver lining, a new understanding of themselves, and a new perspective on other people or life itself.

Herein lies the challenge. The September 11th attack showed us just how ugly the world can be and how much we can be hurt. Can we find benefit in something so hellish?

The answer is we already have. We saw heroes on that day and on the difficult days that followed. There were the selfless firefighters, police officers, and EMTs. There were the anonymous passengers of United Airlines, Flight 93. Even as the attack was still unfolding they simply and purposefully gave their own lives to bring the plane down so that hate could not achieve further victories.

We, too, were heroes. We handed out sandwiches, removed beams, hauled, cheered, and directed traffic. We donated time, clothing, and blood, filled out forms, made telephone calls, packed, unpacked, and delivered supplies, raised money, lined up and waited around just in case we were needed and then came back the next day to wait again. We organized, made posters, sent letters and messages of support.

Heroes not withstanding, the attack on the World Trade Center also generated a less enlightened consequence; it deepened our seemingly bottomless national struggle with race. For many people, the shock of an attack on American soil ballooned into a palpable desire to extract revenge from a salient, ethnic enemy. Fortunately, eventually most of us came to realize that the distinction was not as clear as we might have thought, that anyone can hate and anyone, regardless of race or religion, can also decide not to hate. We have an opportunity to remind ourselves now that the heroes of September 11th came in every color and every creed, from every borough in New York, from all over the country, and from other countries.

We must remember too that on September 11th and on the days that followed we were united, however briefly, by the vision of a world where those in need are helped by those who are able, and with no questions asked. This vision faded all-too-quickly. We knew it would. It always does. But we can remember it and honor it and try to do better. What a leap forward that would be!

George A. Bonanno is Assistant Professor of Psychology and Education at Teachers College.previous page