The age of terror is an age of shocks. Individuals, families and whole societies get torn apart by unexpected stabbings, shootings and bombings.
It’s horrible, of course, but over the past few years the findings of academic research into the effects of these traumas have shifted in a more positive direction. Human beings are more resilient than we’d earlier thought. Many people bounce back from hard knocks and experience surges of post-traumatic growth.
In the first place, post-traumatic stress disorder rates are lower than many of us imagine. According to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only about 13 percent of the first responders on 9/11 had symptoms that would qualify as a stress disorder. Only about 13 percent of the people who saw the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in person experienced PTSD in the next six months.
The best general rule for all of society seems to be that at least 75 percent of the people who experience a life-threatening or violent event emerge without a stress disorder.
Even many of those who are unlucky enough to fall victim to the horrific pain of PTSD are able to recover and rebuild better lives. These are people you sometimes meet who have experienced the worst in life but still radiate love and joy. They get to live a second life and correct the mistakes they made before the earthquake shook everything loose.
As Philip A. Fisher, a University of Oregon psychology professor, noted in an email, the big background factor that nurtures resilience is unconditional love. The people who survive and rebound from trauma frequently had an early caregiver who pumped unshakable love into them, and that built a rock of inner security they could stand on for the rest of their lives.
There are some foreground factors, too, traits super survivors tend to have that enable them to come back stronger than ever. These people are often deluded in good ways about their own abilities but completely realistic about their situations.
That is to say, they have positive illusions about their own talents, and an optimist’s faith in their own abilities to control the future. But they have no illusions about the world around them. They accept what they have lost quickly. They see problems clearly. They work hard. Work is the reliable cure for sorrow.
Recovering from trauma is mainly an exercise in storytelling. As Richard Tedeschi, a psychology professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, has pointed out, trauma is a shock that ruptures the central story that you thought was your life. The recurring patterns that make up life are disrupted. The sense of safety is lost. Having faced death, people in these circumstances are forced to confront the elemental questions of life.
But some people are able to write a new story. As Tedeschi writes, post-traumatic growth comes not from the event but from the struggle afterward to write a new story that imagines a life better than before. Researchers have found that people who thrive after a shock are able to tell clear, forward-looking stories about themselves, while those who don’t thrive get stuck ruminating darkly about the past.
Book 1 is life before the event. Book 2 is the event that shattered the old story. But Book 3 is reintegration, a reframing new story that incorporates what happened and then points to a more virtuous and meaningful life than the one before.
These are intensely moral narratives that describe a life of higher purpose. Viktor Frankl survived the Holocaust and concluded that those who could best survive the camps were those who could satisfy their hunger for lives of meaning. Even if they were suffering, they could direct their attention toward those they loved and those they would serve in their future lives.
Frankl, who went on to become a professor of neurology and psychiatry, cited Nietzsche’s dictum that he who has a why to live for can endure almost any how. The stories super survivors tell have two big themes: optimism and altruism.
It’s interesting that this age of terrorism calls forth certain practical skills — the ability to tell stories, the ability to philosophize and define a meaning to your life. Just as individuals need moral stories if they are going to recover, so probably do nations. France will most likely need a parable to make sense of what happened, just as the United States still has competing parables about the meaning of 9/11 .
This is why foreign policies that pursue amoral realpolitik are always impractical. If a country can’t discern a moral purpose in its foreign policy, it will lack resilience. It will lack the capacity to bounce back from an attack. It will lack a satisfying narrative and lose the ability to thrive in terror’s wake.
The good news is there is no reason to be pessimistic during the war on terrorism. Individuals and societies are tough and resilient, and usually emerge from attacks better than before.