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Responding to Terrorism
      © Gail Carr Feldman, PhD 2001

On a commuter flight to Los Angeles one morning, I was reading the paper, intentionally ignoring the condescending instructions on how to fasten my seatbelt, when my ears picked up the following statement: "Should the air pressure drop in the cabin of the aircraft, an oxygen mask will fall in front of you. After you stop screaming, place the mask over your nose and mouth." Laughter erupted from the passengers as we realized that the stewardess had turned her normally boring, informational talk into a comedy routine.

Since the terrorist attack of September 11, I can't imagine anything humorous about air travel. I think the going has gotten tough, and it may get tougher. When an ordinary event becomes frightening, we first react with disbelief. As the enormity of the crisis is realized, some form of protest erupts - gasps, cries, screams - and as the horror engulfs us, we collapse inward, the normal structures of response toppled. Our immediate task is to keep breathing, moving beyond the fear, allowing our focus to narrow - into the most precise, survival-oriented behavior.

"Inner Strength is our core of resilience, the essence of the timeless Self that holds a seed of Wisdom that grows us over every obstacle."

In our day-to-day lives, the tough times are usually not as overwhelming, but sometimes they are. Since our national tragedy, I've heard many people apologize for their personal problems. "It makes me feel petty to worry about my retirement fund when so many people have died," one friend said. Another young friend in New York City told me on the telephone through her tears that her roommate had judged her harshly for following her normal routine. "I can't stop crying as it is," she said. "If I stop doing the structured activities I usually do, like yoga, I'm afraid I'll go crazy."

Survivor guilt results when we compare ourselves to those less fortunate, and when we allow our compassionate caring to slip into questioning whether we are worthy to be alive. A serious crisis like this one also causes us to re-experience previous loss. So, not only must we cope with the immediate grief reactions, but also with the frozen feelings from the past. This brings us to a point of choice and a point of challenge.

The choice is to recognize that life always continues, and the challenge is to discover and create ways to go on. This necessitates great self-respect, respect for all of our troubles, large and small. Every difficult circumstance must be honored: increased or decreased workloads, lowered income, losses in the stock market, death, illness, care-giving, and all changes in our personal lives that we experience as loss or a deprivation of richness.

Many women in mid-life are juggling plates filled with a variety of jobs - a job in the workplace with possible uncertainty about its stability, the pressure of earning more, or lessened desire or stamina to stay with the position; a job of care-taking or witnessing the passing of aged parents, with the renewed requirement of finally facing and resolving old conflicts that this transition brings up; the job of adjusting to the loss of love and proximity when grown children move away.

These life events are tough, and they serve as reminders to call upon our Inner Strength, that part of the personality that has propelled us through every hard time in the past. Inner Strength is our core of resilience, the essence of the timeless Self that holds a seed of Wisdom that grows us over every obstacle. From that perspective, we can observe ourselves screaming in response to crisis, and we can allow the organism to do whatever grief-work needs to be done, learning to self-calm as we incubate the next bold steps.

The Buddhist concept of nonattachment might be useful here: If we can be centered in awareness of WHAT IS, we can proceed and learn much in the present moment. If we can be unattached to a certain outcome, we are prepared to accept the education inherent in any situation. My friend, Dee, came to New Mexico armed with extensive knowledge about computer programming, graphic design, personnel development, and business consulting. One year later, it was apparent that her small business would fail. She was disappointed and fearful, but as a practicing Buddhist, she simply began to focus clearly on her options. As she did this, the perfect job became available for her.

The disappointment, the anger, the frustration, the depression, the obsession, or the mania - all of the forms of our grief must be released before we see the way clear, before we manifest new life. Like a guidance system, we can use these reactions to learn more about what we truly want. What job, how much work, what location, how much income? More important, what kind of person are we choosing to become? How are we creating our ideal self, the woman we've always wanted to be? What is the fire burning away? And what will be left?

What will be left is the magnificent essence of who we truly are. And we can trust that when the going gets tough, the tough emerge - able to see all the facets of that diamond shining in the center of the heart.