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America's Resilience


Relationships are important for Kempler, too.

"To the extent I have felt anxiety since September 11, it has been reverberating with my World War II experience in the sense of not being in a safe world," he says. "My own illusion of being in a safe world here in America is somewhat shaken as well. It is an illusion that I probably can live without. I am an American so I feel in a much, much better position that when I was a total outcast in Poland. I am shoulder to shoulder with fellow citizens who do not question my right to be here. It is a mixed thing."

Kempler says that children are less likely than adults to be traumatized by the events of Sept. 11.

"So much is made of children's vulnerability, and that is true," he says. "But a point is missed in that often what is traumatic is the sense that our world is coming apart. The world we took for granted is gone. The trauma is this assumption being ripped apart. Then nothing can be trusted. Young children do not as yet have such fully formed impressions of the world. They can certainly be frightened and feel insecure, but it is not quite on the level of 'This is not supposed to be happening.' It is potentially more traumatic for people who have this kind of firm conviction that everything is supposed to be safe."

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced chick-SENT-me-high), PhD, professor of psychology at California's Claremont Graduate University, revolutionized the fields of psychology and education with his work on the psychology of optimal experience.

"What we had before in this country was not normal in the sense that people felt like basically nothing could go really wrong," Csikszentmihalyi tells WebMD. "We will need to be creative and make progress in spite of the fact that we now know life is fragile -- that civilization is fragile. That is a much more mature way of living than expecting that everything will be fine."

Kempler says an important part of resilience is not taking violent acts personally.

"I notice that this question often is asked since September 11: 'Why do they hate us?'" he notes. "The extent to which we take things personally to some extent determines how resilient we are. The person who has the capacity to say, 'This is not directed personally at me,' has a much better chance of remaining resilient. It is the kind of meaning we put on events that makes us capable of being resilient, that lets us cope and adapt."

Experts tell WebMD that many Americans will suffer psychiatric symptoms in the wake of the attack on America. It is important to recognize and support these people. At the same time, Wolin and Kempler say we should not forget that the vast majority of people are going to learn from the experience and grow stronger.

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