Scars of Terror Will Need Time to Heal Georgetown Community Should Take Advantage of All Its Available Resources

By Paul Steinberg

Dear Students of Georgetown University:

There are certain days that will live in infamy throughout a person’s lifetime: The events of Sept. 11, 2001, will never be forgotten by any of us, just as previous generations have never forgotten Dec. 7, 1941 and Nov. 22, 1963.

What have we learned from earlier generations about the nature of human reactions in the face of appalling and mind-boggling events, as these events are swirling around us? We certainly have come to realize that we all tend to share a common set of inevitable reactions, perhaps with somewhat different timetables for each of us. Indeed, the initial reaction is almost invariably a state of shock – a time in which we feel numb and overwhelmed. Nothing seems to make sense: The events feel as if they do not compute in our normal day-to-day perspective on the world. Something appears to be wrong with the picture we are now attempting to integrate into our worldview. Commonly, we find ourselves saying, “This cannot be happening; this could not have happened.” We even question whether we are truly in touch with reality. We almost have to pinch ourselves to convince one another that the events of September 11th have actually occurred.

Rather rapidly, this state of shock gives way to a combination of despair and outrage. We begin to recognize our genuine sense of fragility and vulnerability – each of which is simply part of the human condition. We realize that presidents along with regular citizens are equally vulnerable to the vagaries of human existence. None of us receives any guarantees of being spared. In fact, it is not unusual for any of us to enter into a bargaining with God at this moment of fear and outright terror. A basic truism, “There are no atheists in foxholes,” becomes an immediate part of our worldview. Even the most committed atheists and agnostics may pray not only for their own safety but for the safety and health of their loved ones – making promises to God during this process.

A helpless rage can take over as well. Someone has to be blamed; someone has to be made to pay for these outrageous events. We can easily find ourselves flailing away at innocent bystanders whom we have somehow come to associate with the presumed perpetrators.

Eventually we all find a way to integrate these seemingly overwhelming events into our psyches. We are perhaps never quite the same as we were before these events – we never quite return to our same exact ways of operating in this world. Yet those differences may turn out to be quite reasonable and appropriate: In this process of creating a new synthesis of our experiences, we have shed some of our previous innocence and naivete. We are more prepared for the next set of curveballs that life may throw our way. The science of the brain has shown us in the past decade that these shifts in our thinking are reflected in the laying down of new synapses and new proteins in the brain, and in the formation of new folds in the cerebral cortex. This change is indeed what we conventionally call the development of wisdom.

So, how do we maximize our capacities for handling the appalling events of Sept. 11? Here are some simple suggestions:

1. Maintain as much contact with friends, colleagues, and family as possible. These events have already become a part of our shared national consciousness. Through our connections with others, we can find ways to make sense of seemingly senseless events.

2. Allow ourselves to feel the full range of emotions, including terror, despair, and outrage. Feelings, however, do not have to inevitably lead to action. We can sit with these feelings and share them with our friends and family, without any need to attack others.

3. At a time of national reflection, we can follow our national leadership in any prescribed call-to-action. We do not have to take any action into our own hands.

4. Above all, take advantage of all the resources available on our campus and in our community. For those of you who have been directly or indirectly affected by the events, you can make use of the readily-accessible services of the Georgetown University Counseling Center. The Counseling Center staff is available for walk-ins in their suite of offices off the back-patio of Darnall Hall – or by phone at (202) 687-6985. Likewise the chaplains at Georgetown, representing all religious denominations, provide a rich and invaluable resource. They can be reached through Campus inistry at (202) 687-4300.

We live in an extraordinary time – a time in which each of us cannot afford to let our pride get in the way of our seeking support and help when we need it. Extraordinary times generally call for extraordinary reactions and solutions. We can only hope that we are all up to the task, through our efforts to work together in a common cause.

Paul Steinberg is a psychiatrist at Georgetown’s Counseling and Psychiatric Services.

Have a reaction to this article? Write a letter to the editor.

Comments are closed.