Ten years is a long time to suffer without hope. As we approached the anniversary of 9/11 most Americans are poised to "commemorate" that terrible Tuesday, to recall, honor, and preserve the memory of what happened, to whom, and what was lost. However, there are some, including a few notable "experts" (some otherwise credible and other merely self-proclaimed) who have decried the attention given to this tenth anniversary. One "expert" expressed the hope that this would be the last "commemoration". My hope is different.
I am a psychologist who writes (no surprise) on the topic of hope. From this perspective, I would like to offer my thoughts on what the average person might do to remain hopeful while also commemorating the events of 9/11. I want to wrap my message in the environmental metaphor of "sustainability". For I believe that hope is one of a few human emotions that can be sustained. Unlike joy or ecstasy, it does not have to be ephemeral. Moreover, I believe that a good life, in the sense that Aristotle had in mind, can be realized with a hopeful attitude, even in the nights and shadows that will invariably come in a lifetime.
To sustain hope, there are certain psychological resources that you need to develop and to maintain. However, there are nearly as many emotional pitfalls that must be avoided. I view these pitfalls as psychological myths that can promote unsustainable ways of living that undermine the human potential for hope and fail to take into account certain biological, psychological, or social realities.
These myths acquired their potency because the seeds were first sown in a wider cultural milieu, then transplanted and cultivated within the labs of psychological science, and eventually re-planted in the public consciousness, often in a distorted and potentially misleading manner. In honor of Sunday, I came up with nine myths, divided into three categories, and eleven solutions, representing the four dimensions of hope. I am confident that readers pondering 9/11 will not find it difficult to connect with these myths and solutions.
The 9 Myths
Myths of Time
1. Grief is time limited. (Everyone goes through certain stages. If you do not get over the loss, you need professional help.) This myth disrespects the power of the past and the reality of human attachments.
2. Trauma defines you. (If you had a trauma, it is the author of your life story. Your identity is that of a "trauma survivor".) The myth disrespects the power of the future and the reality of human resilience.
3. Mindfulness should be your dominant mindset. (You should never judge. You should always accept. Focus only on the present.) This myth disrespects the power of the past and the future as well as the reality of a human brain dominated by tissue designed for looking forward and back.
Myths of Mood
4. Emotions are destructive. (Emotions are born of an agitated body or an irrational mind. At best, they hinder coping; at worst, they increase stress. Manage them.) This myth confuses the use of computer models (developed by human brains) to simulate some of our capacities for the entirety of our humanity.
5. Optimism is a preferred mood state. (Optimists who have a strong sense of internal control will flourish in every arena.) This myth ignores the collaborative nature of most human endeavors, the risk of dangerous illusions, and the inability of optimism alone to buffer individuals in times of adversity.
6. Happiness should be your ultimate goal. This myth ignores the fleeting nature of happiness and the mounting evidence that meaning, not happiness, is a better predictor of adjustment and life satisfaction.
Myths of Faith
7. Religion is psychologically and scientifically indefensible. (Religion is a palliative; a crutch for the weak, a guidepost for the naïve.) The myth denies the role played by values and faith in science as well as strong evidence on the emotional, physical and social benefits of religious or spiritual involvement.
8. Religion and leadership should never be mixed. (Religious or spiritual involvement is tantamount to psychological manipulation.) The myth confuses the use of spiritual direction to guide the legitimate exercise of authority with the use of religion for political gain. There is a difference.
9. Religion breeds terrorism. (Ban religion from public ceremonies. Religious differences fuel "holy wars".) This myth ignores the hopelessness of terrorists who fall prey to those promising perverted forms of religion that offer power (mastery), membership (attachment), and liberation (survival) to the disenfranchised, alienated and trapped. The problem is not religion but hopelessness.
The 11 Solutions
In Hope in the Age of Anxiety, my co-author Dr. Henry Biller and I, provided many examples from science as well as history, art and the classics, that hope springs from four human needs; mastery, attachment, survival and spirituality. Here are 11 emotional strengths to build a hope for "all seasons". With such hope, it is possible to honor the past while living in the present and planning for the future.
1. Collaborate. Some of the greatest "individual" achievements, including Hillary's climb of Everest and Gertrude Ederle's swim of the English Channel drew on the help of others. Hope is a team effort.
2. Have a purpose. Individuals who link their goals to more transcendent values invest more effort and are more successful. Hope is a mission.
3. Reach out to others. One of the defining characteristics of resilient individuals is the ability to recruit help from others. Resilient children derive a lot of nurturance from a little care. Hope is open.
4. Build relationships of trust. In infancy, basic trust fosters the capacity to hope. Cardiac patients who lack a trusted confidante are four times more likely to have a second heart attack. Hope is honest.
5. Find a continued presence. A secure attachment is critical for hope. The most promising interventions for addressing depression and suicide now focus on strengthening interpersonal ties. Hope is connected.
6. Practice self-regulation. Breathe in to a count of four and breathe out to a count of six. Keep an eye on the big picture. Anxiety tends to narrow your focus and reduces mental agility. Hope is calm.
7. Strengthen your liberation beliefs. Maximize the potential inherent in your genes, your family of origin, your cultural background, and your educational experiences. Hope is free.
8. Be flexible. Do not get stuck in one way of coping. You can problem solve, ask for advice, wait for the right moment, distract yourself, escape, avoid, or pray. Hope adjusts.
9. Seek spiritual empowerment. From Sun Tzu's Art of War to Steven Covey, the "masters of mastery" preached righteousness. Psychologists now have data on the power of sanctified goals. Hope is inspired.
10. Create a spiritual connection. Go to a "sacred place". For some this may be a church, temple, or mosque. For others the connection may come through immersion in nature or music. Hope is mystical.