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October 2001
EXISTENTIALISM AND SEPTEMBER 11th
By Susan Harper Slate, Ph.D.

For those of us who can remember where they were when they heard Pearl Harbor had been bombed or John F. Kennedy shot, remembering where you were and what you were doing on Tuesday, September 11th will be a similar experience. For many, not only their lives, but the world changed on those days. It is, to say the least, a "paradigm shift." On September 10th, your life was like it usually is--your share of joys and heartaches, good times and difficult. On September 12th, what you feel is different, scary and different.

If there is any good that comes out of 9/11, beyond our stated goal of eradicating terrorism, it may be this: crisis is clarifying. It does not "make" an individual, as much as it "reveals" one. What you hold as important, what motivates you, and what values you live by become center stage. All the "peripheral" parts of life become exactly that--peripheral. The shift can be dramatic and all-at-once or it may take time. For some, they feel as though they have lost their central ways of being in the world and their focus. It's as though the puzzle they were working on has been completely scrambled and now must be reassembled, only with a new picture as the result.

When Maslow, many years ago, wrote about his now-famous "hierarchy of needs", he stated that if you satisfy the base needs--food, shelter and safety--you could go up the ladder, so to speak. Only after fulfilling the primary needs may you then work toward "self-actualization." From this writer's perspective, I think something has gone seriously wrong, because while some appeared to be pursuing that goal, so many seemed to be pursuing something much less lofty. Our consumerism and our insatiable drive to be entertained seemed of paramount importance. Now we slide back down the ladder to a need to feel safe, and in the process, once again discover hedonism's empty promise: You can't get enough of what you don't really need.

Certainly one of the changes (and unfortunately, no doubt we will revert back to the way we were) has been an increased sense of people needing to feel connected to others. Our protective shield of "being our own person" shatters. We not only need one another to grieve the loss of the 2948+, but to feel safe again. People fly the American flags for many reasons, but one is to feel "united." On the day of September 11th, strangers said hello to one another on the street. If you're reading this from some midwestern town, that may not mean much, but in cynical, suspicious and oh-so-cool LA, that was different. One of my patients, relocated from the east, remarked that the "World Trade Center was like my backyard." On that day and subsequently, many of us feel it was our backyard, whether or not we have ever stepped inside New York.

Relationships become paramount again. My husband was across the country in Canada at the time of the bombings. All I wanted, all he wanted, was to be home again to cuddle up with each other and our two children. At no other time are people as clear about what matters to them as when there is loss or potential loss.

Much has been written and spoken about how to help your children process these events. But first and foremost, process them yourself. By "process" I mean write about the events, talk about them, feel about them. Take action. Be careful to not watch too much television coverage on the events. Choose the most knowledgeable and reasoned articles to read. If you feel you are stuck somewhere and you aren't processing this well, consult some of the previous articles on this website for help. For example, WHAT IS EMDR?, IS MY ANXIETY NORMAL? - Part I, Part II, Part III, UNDERSTANDING DEPRESSION, or HOW STRESS REDUCTION CAN SAVE YOUR LIFE. By all means, consult the introductory letter by Dr. Dorothea McArthur.

Make sure someplace in your soul, you keep a candle lit, not just for those who have died, but for your own spirit. Whatever form that takes place is for you to decide. This isn't a "how to" as much as an arrow pointing in the direction. For me, I'm planting a garden. I'm hoping for 2948 flowers by spring.

Dr. Harper Slate is a psychotherapist in practice in Santa Monica. She is a member of the Independent Psychotherapy Network.

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