America's Resilience

From the WebMD Archives

Oct. 12, 2001 -- In a dark new age of insecurity, one great character strength shines bright. We see it in the rescue workers sifting the rubble of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. We see it in the lines at the Red Cross as we wait to give blood. It's called resilience.

"Resilience is the capacity to find new and creative ways to assert life despite great trauma and obstacles," psychologist Bernhard Kempler, PhD, tells WebMD. Kempler should know. As a Jewish child, he became separated from his parents and wandered homeless in war-torn Europe. Eventually he was captured by the Nazis and sent to a concentration camp. He survived -- and grew stronger because of it.

It's not that people like Kempler are immune to trauma. His secret, and that of many, many others, is that he's resilient.

"It is not helpful to think of some people as invulnerable -- as if anybody escapes life without wounds and scars," family psychiatrist Steven J. Wolin, MD, tells WebMD. "We all die; we all have loved ones get ill. Resilience is the process of persevering in the face of hardship. It is a common thing. It doesn't belong to just a small narrow group."

Wolin, clinical professor of psychiatry and director of family therapy training at George Washington University Medical Center in Washington, D.C., is co-author of The Resilient Self: How Survivors of Troubled Families Rise Above Adversity. He says resilience has seven components: morality, relationships, initiative, independence, humor, creativity, and insight. (There is more information on this concept at his web site, projectresilience.com.) In the current crisis, he finds morality and relationships to be the most important resiliencies.

"Morality is the desire to do a good thing for someone -- to do the right thing," Wolin says. "That desire to provide service is the greatest resilience we have. We have the ability to do acts of goodness, to feel good in the face of evil. Initiative and morality; go together. The way you express morality -- the way you solve problems -- is to take the initiative."

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Kempler makes the same point. "To support other people and to help in whatever way one can help: that, I think, has a lot to do with resilience," he says. "Not feeling helpless, having a meaningful thing you can do, is an important part of resilience"

Another resilience is the ability to share relationships with other people.

"One of the few good things that have come out of this disaster is that everybody is talking more to people they know and love -- even to strangers -- and there is this desire to hug people," Wolin says. Everybody is talking about how important the people they care about are. From this need, a real strength is arising. We can all see that strength working as a resilient process."

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."

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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.

"Americans in general probably are quite resilient," Kempler says. "I do believe that Americans as a whole rise to the occasion. I think part of it is our diversity. We are used to many, many perspectives. We value variety for its own sake. We believe it makes us creative and resilient. You would see much less resilience in a more fanatical or totalitarian country that sees things in black-and-white terms."

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