President Obama Lays a Wreath at Ground Zero
Positive Psychology is a field of study that focuses on the positive and transformative aspects of human experience -human thriving as opposed to merely struggling for survival. My particular focus within positive psychology is on the psychology of finding positive meanings that allow us to move on from traumatic events and even, with time & support, to work to heal ourselves and others from the impact of trauma. For me personally, part of this meaning is to support institutions & values that help human beings to live healthy, peaceful, and meaningful lives, free of terror, hunger, abuse, disease and so on. The events of this week, including the killing of Osama Bin Laden have raised a plethora of reactions, ranging from support for waterboarding to criticism of the way the mission was conducted and disclosed to the public. In this post, I will share my personal perspective on the event, from a framework of positive psychology.
Honoring Those Killed in 9/11 & Our Nations' Heroes
The 9/11 Firefighters
I believe that the President's decision to have a ceremony today at Ground Zero appropriately brings the focus of national attention back to honoring the lives of the innocent people who were killed, and celebrating the heroism of those who rushed in to help. Even in the midst of the most terrible tragedy to befall our nation, we see a spirit of human compassion, heroism, and resilience in the actions taken by firefighters and other public service workers to try to save lives and locate bodies of victims. Many forfeited their lives in these efforts and most put their own lives at risk for a higher moral ideal. Furthermore,most of those who died had families and friends that loved them and for whom their memory will continue to serve as a positive inspiration. Our Navy SEALS also put their lives at risk to do an extremely dangerous and difficult mission for our country. The city of New York came together to deal collectively with this event and is now in the process of rebuilding a memorial at Ground Zero. Today, President Obama visited Ground Zero to lay a wreath and let the families know that our nation continues to care and to honor the memory of their loved ones. He also took the high road in inviting President Bush to join him (Bush declined) and saying words that serve to unite, rather than divide our nation.
Changing the Trauma Narrative
Famous trauma researchers, such as Edna Foa, Bessel van der Kolk, and James Pennebaker have focused on the way we construct narratives around traumatic events as a key predictor of future psychological health and adjustment. Traumas, initially, are remembered as fragmented images and overwhelming feelings. Often, the horror cannot be put into words. Over time, and with treatment and/or a supportive environment that allows for disclosure, most people are able to construct a narrative of the event that helps them to move on and continue their lives without constant terror and grief. This does not mean they forget what happened, feel no pain, or minimize itheir experience, but rather, that they can continue to live a meaningful life despite the event. Some positive meanings may include committing oneself to actions to help others impacted by similar events, finding solace in family, community or national outpourings of support, speaking up and fighting for justice, finding ways to honor the loved ones, feeling proud of having survived, strengthening spiritual faith, national pride, or one's identification with a larger group. Some people become stuck on more negative meanings, such as feeling victimized, helpless, incompetent, unworthy, undeserving, or alone and vulnerable. These individuals are more likely to suffer continuing distress and develop mental health and intimacy problems. Research has shown that qualities of one's trauma narrative, including constructing a coherent, logically consistent story, and finding meaning predict better adjustment. There is also evidence that trauma narratives change with subsequent events or cognitive-behavioral exposure treatment. There is a clinical account of a woman who developed PTSD only after she found out her rapist had killed his next victim. This news changed her narrative of the event to make it more terrifying.
How Killing Bin Laden Can Beneficially Impact Survivors' Trauma Narratives
Ground Zero, the scene of today's ceremony
Some have questioned whether it was necessary to hunt down and kill Bin Laden, given he did not constitute an imminent threat to the American public. My view on this is that it would not have been necessary had he denounced terror, expressed remorse and taken responsibility for the pain he caused. However, he did not do this. In a tape released after the event, we see him gloating over the killings. He also named his youngest daughter after a person who had killed Jews. These images and stories pose a direct threat to the 9/11 families' psychological recovery. They serve as a haunting reminder that the killer is still out there, getting satisfaction from their loved ones' death. How can one believe in a benevolent and meaningful world when evil people are triumphant and nations who espouse moral values are too helpless, conflicted, or apathetic to impose consequences? One of the 9/11 family members interviewed today said as much. He said it meant everything to him that the President made good on his promise not to forget or let people forget about those who died. He said it had haunted him that Bin Ladin was still out there celebrating the killing of his child. Therefore, aside from the security threats, I believe the latest US Mission was a justifiable killing in terms of restoring positive meaning to the survivors of 9/11. With Bin Laden gone and their loved ones not forgotten and honored by our country, the families can at least feel that their government and its peoples have empathy for their suffering. The ability of our nation's armed forces and government to protect our safety is reiterated, which changes the trauma narrative for all of us. While no government can guarantee complete safety, I believe that this tragic chapter in our nation's history can be put to rest. Hopefully, the next chapter will be working for peace and justice for all of the world's people and continuing to stand up to enemies who espouse mass killings of innocent civilians.
Melanie Greenberg PhD is a Clinical Health Psychologist with a private practice in Marin County, CA. She specializes in helping individuals deal with life stress due to chronic illness, role demands, traumas and major life transitions. She is also available for workshops and speaking engagements. To find out more about my clinical practice, background, and scientific publications, visit my website at http://melaniegreenbergphd.com/marin-psychologist/. . For more articles, check out my blog http://marinpsychologist.blogspot.com.
Follow me on twitter (@drmelanieg) & facebook http://www.facebook.com/MindfulSelfExpress.