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'We Are Stronger Than We Realized'

At a TC remembrance ceremony for 9/11, distilling lessons from New York City's darkest day
At a TC remembrance ceremony for 9/11, distilling lessons from New York City’s darkest day

Recalling “that bright, cloudless, beautiful September morning that suddenly turned so terrifyingly dark,” President Susan Fuhrman opened Teachers College’s 9/11 remembrance ceremony in Milbank Chapel by invoking Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius’ observation that “even though the whole world deafens you with its roar and wild beasts tear your body apart like a lump of clay … nothing can bar a [steady mind] from correct judgment, nor defeat its readiness to see the benefit that all things bring.’

“Even something as terrifying and destructive as the mass murder that took place 10 years ago in this city is a teachable moment,” Fuhrman said, setting the tone for ensuing hour, during which psychology faculty member George Bonanno  delivered a talk titled “Out of the Ashes: Lessons Learned from Research after 9/11”; members of the TC community were invited to speak the names of people they knew who died in the 9/11 attacks; and the audience listened to a performance of “Meditation,” a duet composed by TC Music Education faculty member Richard Pearson Thomas (piano) and performed by Thomas and Music Education master’s degree student Katie Kresek (violin).

View the recording of the event: September 11th, a Tenth Anniversary Remembrance

Amplifying Fuhrman’s thought, Provost Tom James, in his remarks, added that “Every age has had its unthinkable tragedies – and understanding what they signify, for human history, is the work of those who live through them and feel their physical, emotional and geopolitical effects.” While that work “grows out of our collective experience” James said, “what we can do, as scholars and teachers and psychologists and health educators, is give voice to that experience, help distill its essence, and apply what we learn for human good.”

Bonanno, whose talk was based in part on his own observations of survivors and their families, began by showing some “indelible images that will be with us the rest of our lives”: the Towers in flames; trapped people leaping from windows; onlookers below running for their lives; rescuers emerging from the ashes.

“When it was over, as Bruce Springsteen wrote, New York City was left with ‘an empty sky,’” he said.

Yet the learning that has followed during the past decade has been substantive indeed. Bonanno shared five key lessons from 9/11:

  • Bad things do happen – “which sounds obvious or even glib,” he said, but is perhaps a lesson that the United States, with its sense of invulnerability, needed to learn. Bonanno reminded the audience of the journalist Jack Beatty’s famous observation that with 9/11, the American people were “expelled from Disneyland.”
  • Disasters can cause serious harm – another point that seems obvious, but less so given how much of what is known about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and even suicidal thoughts has emerged in recent years.
  • We can’t fix that damage right away.  “Before 9/11, we thought that the best thing to do was to bring in mental health counselors right away,” Bonanno said. Yet 9/11 and subsequent disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina and the tsunami of 2004, have shown that these interventions don’t help and can actually make things worse. “Fear and sadness are highly adaptive responses that are part of how we cope,” Bonanno said. “The pain is initially very useful” because it allows us to “turn inward, take stock, and recalibrate our brains to what we we’ve lost” – and, no less important, to signal others that we are vulnerable and in need of compassion and care.
  • Not everyone reacts the same way to trauma. Bonanno said that traditional models of trauma have emphasized only extreme pathological dysfunction; have lumped people into just two categories -- dysfunction/disorder and health – and assumed dysfunction as the most common response. Yet “there’s great variability in how much and how long people will be upset by exposure to traumatic events” – a point Bonanno himself has underscored with studies that have identified a surprisingly high percentage of people (between 35 and 65 percent) who achieve durable emotional resilience within a very short period after a traumatic event. These people are able to maintain relatively stable, healthy levels of psychological and physical functioning, as well as the capacity for generative experiences and positive emotions.”
  • Which leads to the fifth and most hopeful lesson: We are stronger than we realized – a conclusion supported by studies showing that the vast majority of people successfully weather bereavement, terrorist attacks, traumatic injury, epidemics such as SARS, and more. Indeed, said Bonanno to a ripple of laughter, studies have found little difference between emotional stress levels of soldiers deployed in combat and couples dealing with the birth a new baby. But, he said, there’s still much to be learned: “If we are so resilient, why – and if most people are so resilient, why is it that some are not?”  What is it that communities do to so successfully support people psychologically? And how is that people “who have been through the worst kind of hell” can still genuinely laugh and smile?

Bonanno concluded by paraphrasing a sentiment expressed by the late writer and teacher Frank McCourt when he appeared on The Brian Lehrer Show soon after 9/11:

“McCourt said, ‘We want  to honor those who have passed, but we don’t want to hear the drums all day,’” Bonanno said. “He said, ‘We don’t only want the bagpipes. We want to hear some jazz, too. We want to hear the children play.’”

The 9/11 remembrance ceremony was hosted by TC’s Vice President Office for Diversity and Community. “Meditation,” by Richard Pearson Thomas, is featured on Thomas’ CD  “Race to the Sky.”

Published Tuesday, Sep. 20, 2011


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