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Attacks force many to re-evaluate their lives

USA Today, 10/4/2001, by Robert Davis 

As aftershocks from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks continue to rock the nation -- thousands of loved ones lost, waves of job layoffs, and personal freedom under constant threat -- some people are taking a hard look at their lives and how they have been living them. The same kind of personal reckoning that has prompted rich but unfulfilled CEOs to become happier yoga teachers may lead to positive life changes, even for some who are facing devastating loss.

"Loss can be transformational," says Sue Motulsky, a career counselor in Maynard, Mass., who has seen a new attitude emerge after the attack: "They say if life is uncertain and we don't know how long we may be on the planet, why am I not doing something I really like?"

In some ways, the greater the loss, the greater the opportunity for new growth, she and others say. Habits that we may consider getting rid of are tough to shake when they are ingrained in the daily routine. As we go through the same motions day after day, a familiar comfort grows.

"People are scared of change, scared of the unknown," says Barbara Lynne, a social worker from Concord, Mass. "When there is a lot of uncertainty, they tend to cling to what is familiar."

But when everything grinds to a halt and nothing is quite the same because of outside forces, suddenly anything is possible. Facing the fear of death puts the fear of change in a new light. "Crisis equals opportunity," Lynne says. "The opportunity comes from the fact that the crisis stopped you in your tracks. It makes you stop, look and listen."

The terrorist attack "is blowing everybody's mind," Lynne says. "It's creating a sea change in the American psyche."

Motulsky agrees. "I think a lot of people, when they get over the shock, are going to say, -'Wait a minute, how am I spending my time?'" she says.

Mark, Hauber, 33, a hospital education coordinator who works in Boston, is one of those people. Hauber occasionally takes the early morning flight from Logan Airport to Los Angeles when he flies home to see his parents. He knows he easily could have been on one of the hijacked planes. Now he's determined to move home.

It's not a new idea for him. He has been working to rearrange his life ever since a recent breakup with a serious girlfriend triggered a "spiritual awakening" and made him rethink his priorities. But the attack has given his effort a new urgency.

"It's a Pandora's box, and when you open it up, everything just comes pouring out," he says of the "awakening."

"Some people can just make changes. They just decide to do it, and they have the self discipline to see it through to the end. It took something more earthshaking for me."

He turned his personal trauma into a better way of life. He changed jobs. He works out and eats better. And he continues to look for ways to improve his life, with hopes of eventually moving back home to California.

But making changes amid chaos isn't easy, and it can carry big risks.

Elizabeth Midlarsky, a Columbia University psychology professor who has counseled survivors, says the badly shaken are more vulnerable to bad advice. People who have been traumatized should be cautious about making changes in their lives, she says.

"Don't change anything you can't change back easily," she says, "This may not be the time to make those decisions. Hold onto everything, and don't be transformed quite so quickly."

Motulsky acknowledges that caution is the key. She urges people who begin to rebuild after a loss to gather a team of advisors ranging from family and friends to spiritual and job counselors.

Hauber created a team of advisors that included, "a counselor who helped me figure out why I was making the decisions I was making in my life."

Motulsky says that if handled delicately, the power of trauma to trigger change can help some people come back better than before the loss.

"If you get desperate enough, it's like the old stuff kind of burns away and you are able to see things that you weren't able to see before," she says.

"It's like the loss creates a space for something new to come in that wasn't there before."

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