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Renowned Psychotherapist and author of A New Approach to Women and Therapy (bio)
Healing Through the Dark Emotions: The Wisdom of Grief, Fear, and Despair
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Epilogue - Dark Emotions in an Age of Global Terror
The images are indelibly etched in our collective consciousness: the monumental World Trade Center a flame. The jumbo jet crashing into one of the twin towers. The fireball. The billowing gray smoke. People hanging off the side of the skyscraper, falling and jumping to their deaths. And then the slow-motion collapse in that infernal cloud of dust, bringing with it the collapse of all of our dreams of safety. People running in the streets, the dust cloud chasing them.
The aftermath, described by some as a kind of “nuclear winter.” The darkness, the piles and piles of gray dust. Debris fields fifteen stories high. The rescuers and volunteers digging through the rubbled landscape. The survivors, relatives, and friends of the victims, holding up photos of their husbands, wives, sisters, brothers, children, coworkers. Praying and weeping in front of the television cameras. Hoping that in the piles of melted steel, among the rubble of body parts, their loved ones would be resurrected.
I’ve spoken in these pages of “mushroom clouds” of grief, fear, and despair that daily affect our emotional states, usually below the level of consciousness. On September 11, the mushroom cloud became horrifyingly visible, and we all became conscious. America woke up to its vulnerability.
In a concentric ring, starting from “Ground Zero” and moving out, we are all trauma survivors now. Of course, civilians are killed every day, by terrorists, by their own military governments, by war, in countries far away. These events leave concentric circles of trauma in the human family, just as did the events of September 11. Now, this truth has been brought home, and it has left us raw, trembling with heightened awareness of the immediacy of sudden, inexplicable death for everyday people. We had our plans for terrorist attack, our city officials schooled in the possibility, run-throughs in every major city in America. But we didn’t think it could really happen here.
Losing an illusion is devastating. We hurt. We’re frightened, if not panicked. Anxiety about worldwide terrorism, biological warfare, and nuclear menace will sound a permanent note in our psyches from now on. A cloud that we hadn’t seen before now appears over us, moving as we move. The media speaks of new mass psychology following “the defining event of our time.” In this mass psychology, the dark emotions are raised to a new prominence.
We want to be angry, to find a target for our global anxiety and terror. Anger feels less helpless than fear, more energizing than grief. Certainly there is a place for anger in all of this. No one with a heart could behold the hell on earth wrought by so-called men of God and not be outraged at the utter madness of human beings intent on arriving in heaven by using themselves and others as bombs. But our anger, if it becomes a shield against our more vulnerable feelings of fear and grief, can easily shift from moral outrage to righteous hatred and irrational vengeance. It can move us to destroy something—anything—in order to produce a feeling of safety, however fleeting. But there is danger in this way. Ultimately, you can’t kill fear with weapons of war.
Blind nationalism and blind religious fervor, in the United States or in the Muslim world, or anywhere else, is not likely to make the world safer. These narrow passions are part of the problem. No doubt these passions will be raised to a new crescendo now, in the aftermath of September 11. But the only authentic transcendence possible in a world of global terror is that which comes from expanding ourselves, beyond the nation-state, beyond religion, beyond race—to what we share in common as human beings. To shift the world’s current emotional ecology, we humans would have to open ourselves to an enlarged understanding of the grief, fear, despair, and anger of the Other. It is this suffering, and the desire for something better, that we have in common. This is not a time to proclaim that God is on our side no matter what or to wave our respective flags. It’s a time to find a way to extend our commitment to life beyond the ego of national and religious boundaries. Because now more than ever before, it is clear: No one is safe unless we are all safe. Our only hope for lessening fear in the world is to rally together as a family of nations to make the world safer for everyone.
Copyright 2003 by Miriam Greenspan