This Sunday, we remember September 11th. This date is sealed in our minds for many as a day of terror and tragic loss. Social media, news channels and even ESPN are already filled with hashtags like #wherewereyou9/11 or #neverforget, displaying endless videos and recollections of the millions of personal experiences that followed from that day. But do we remember the most important things that we learned from 9/11? Have we missed the most important part in the narrative? Perhaps the aftermath of 9/11 has more to tell us then a reminder of the dangers of terrorism?
As a chaplain and social worker, I cannot help but compare the stories of 9/11 to the narratives that I hear from the people I have worked with over the years. Traumatic events begin to color their actions- basing all of their new experiences on recalling or avoiding a past violent of horrific act. Like a car accident that keeps you away from an intersection or an uncle that reminds you that all man can’t be trusted. The act itself, then begins to shape future experiences. This is not surprising, given our evolutionary development toward survival e.g. not remembering where a bear attacked you could mean the end of your species. Likewise, children who experience trauma at a young age tend to become hypersensitive to painful stress as an adult. So remembering traumatic experiences is built into our DNA, but this bend toward traumatic events keeps us from seeing a key insight into the 9/11 aftermath.
Renowned neurologist Robert Scaer (2005) once said that trauma “freezes us in a past event that thereafter dictates our entire perception of reality.” Traumatic events literally blind us from what is actually going on around us keeping us from seeing the actual response, the people, or aftermath. Indeed, two articles were the preverbal scientific piped pipers of this movement (Journal of the American Medical Association/Archives of General Psychiatry), claiming that watching the towers fall would have catastrophic lasting effects on New Yorkers and the greater population of the U.S. This was undoubtedly false.
The reality is that 9/11 revealed to us a secret about human existence and how people cope with trauma and on a large scale. They don’t and can’t do it alone. In the extraordinary physical and mental onslaught in those two days, we saw people intuit this. Thousands of chaplains and volunteers helped clean up rubble and search for remains, literally caring for strangers as their neighbors. People living there at the time reported strangers hugging people in the park if they were crying. We saw restaurant owners feeding thousands involved in removing rubble. One year after, violent crimes, depression and suicide rates dropped significantly in New York as compared to other cities.
It turns out that remembering trauma is just the first step, but it is not the most important one. The determinant in whether a traumatic event will have long lasting mental and physical distress is the care and social support that one receives after. The lesson we learned in 9/11 is not one of trauma, but of the power of social support. That no injury or act of terror can damage a community that holds the skills to reconnect and communalize the event. The same is true for refugee camps and trauma survivors who are hold the capacity to make meaning and connect with each other. In a time where social isolation is one of the grand challenges of our day, the lessons of 9/11 linger as a reminder of the importance of social connection and its role in helping us deal with hardships and traumatic events of our lives. As the president said in a recent address, “the legacy of 9/11 is…of resiliency and hope.” We should never forget how fear turns into hope through the communal and social supports. No one can do it alone.