With the 10th anniversary of 9/11, we have all had a chance to reflect on the meaning of that terrible day in our lives. Many of these posts are about the choices we face as individuals as the challenges of these trying times weigh more and more heavily on us. Ultimately, this choice either will lead us down a road of fear and anger, or we will find a higher way, a path of mature restraint, reflection and compassion. For each of us as individuals and as a nation, this anniversary puts this choice into sharp relief.
I want to lay out in the next few posts how the psychology of fear and anger moves in society after a tragic loss and how these get expressed as extremism if we don’t use the skills needed to choose to work from the “better angels of our nature.” We need to understand the mechanism of this choice so we have some tools at our disposal when the next tragic event touches our lives. We’ll start with a quick discussion about grief.
Often times we hear people talk about “getting over” their grief. It makes it sound like grief is a cold that we just need to recover from. But, grief is much more than that. It winds up defining us for good or bad, depending on the choices we make. Grief is the rightful expression of the loss of something we love. To say we are “getting over” our grief almost sounds like we are saying we are “getting over” our love. It devalues what we love. No, we don’t “get over” grief. We allow grief to bring us to a more full understanding of what it is we love, what we value most in life and how we will live our life as a result. In fact, it is not approaching grief in this way, avoiding or devaluing it, that causes problems. More on that below.
Any terrible loss will evoke grief in us. In healthy grief, for instance, we think of the person who has left us and are reminded of their good qualities. As we grieve, there is a natural and necessary sadness that accompanies the grief. Grief resolves itself when we find a way to give meaning to the loss, especially when we resolve to somehow keep alive in our own lives the good qualities of those who have passed on. When we decide to make those qualities that were alive in our loved one alive in our own life, the energy of grief is transformed into moral commitment. This is the gift of grief.
When my mother passed away, I was asked to give her eulogy. I saw this as a difficult, but final precious gift I could give her. Before the funeral, I bought every white rose I could find at all the florists in town and brought them to the church for the service. I spoke of my mother’s fine qualities, her virtues of courage, her openness to see the delight in every situation, her deep strength and generosity. We laughed and cried as I told stories we all knew that demonstrated these virtues.
Then, I asked my 8 brothers and sisters to come up and receive the white roses. I asked them to give these roses to their kids. I asked my nephews and nieces to accept a rose as a symbol of their grandmother’s best qualities. It was now their task to keep these virtues alive in their own lives and to add to them with their own “flowers,” their own unique strengths, talents and virtues. Together, these “flowers” make up our family garden of character. I invited them to be attentive to that garden. To be responsible for its health and to not settle for only taking from it, but also to give to it, freely, consciously and generously.
This movement from grief to moral commitment has been a formula for working through grief since at least the times of the Funeral Oration of Pericles in 431 BC up to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. But, this grieving process can go awry. In the uncertainty and powerlessness we feel after the horror of a deliberately cruel mass-murder like after 9/11 or the senseless killings in Tucson, we become vulnerable to our own worst nature. It is the role of leaders of point out the higher road to us and lead the way up it.
We are wired, by genetics and neurology, to instinctually react to threats with certain survival mechanisms. These instinctual survival responses arise from the part of our brain, the brain stem, that doesn’t think, but instead, reacts quickly to get us out of trouble. This is a good thing, too. If we had to think about what it means when a car is barreling down on us, we would likely get run over. Instead, our brain stem reacts and has us jump out of the way reflexively, without a thought. The thinking comes later. So, when we face a threat, we are wired to react and not think, in such a way as to get us out of danger.
The sense of powerlessness we feel after a terrible loss acts like a threat to us. It can stir up the same unthinking survival responses just as surely as a lion chasing us can. This sense of powerlessness jump starts our survival responses. To amplify and focus our attention, this survival response is attached to two emotions: fear or anger (or both). When fear and anger are turned on, our normal grief stops. We are no longer concerned with completing the work of grief. We are no longer viewing the world objectively. We become fixated on survival by fleeing the threat or attacking it.
Fear and Anger stop the process of higher thought: acquiring wisdom and higher moral conviction. Fear and anger are excellent lenses to focus our attention and resolve in times of threat. But, they are disaterous in social settings if we want to create community, foster relationships and raise healthy children. If fear becomes an unexamined habitual pattern of response in our life, it ultimately leads us to alienation and a paralysis of our motivation. Anger leads us to conflict and the focus of our will on divisiveness. These two feed extremism, which we will discuss in the next posts.
Fear and anger become filters that color all of our mental processes. We no longer look at the world objectively. Everything we perceive is processed through the filter of this strong emotion. So, if we are afraid, everything we perceive tells us we should stay afraid. If we are angry, everything we take in is “proof” of why we are justified in being angry. Objective thinking stops. This is fine if we are trying to stave off a threat and need to be entirely focused on our survival. But, if the situation doesn’t call for fear or anger, our mental abilities remain constrained by these emotions nonetheless. We are less able to deal with the situation we face on its own terms.
In a sense, we become enslaved to our survival emotions if they are operating without being restrained by our higher cortical brain centers. These cortical brain centers only come into play as a result of the practice of choice: the choice to calm our fear and anger. We are controlled by our instincts until we choose to be guided by our moral intentions.
Neurologically, we could say that when fear and anger are turned on, the cortex of the brain, where we engage creative thinking, where choice is exercised across a broad spectrum of options, becomes subservient to the brain stem. The moral reasoning part of the brain is dominated by the survival reflexes driven by the brain-stem. With anger and fear, control of the brain is coming from the bottom/unthinking structures of the brainstem instead of the most human part that is on top, the cortex.
It was my pleasure and privilege recently to meet and interview a very interesting man for the book I am writing about this topic of our ability to make the best choice in a terrible situation. His name is Jimmy Dunne. Jimmy is one of the senior partners of Sandler O’Neill & Partners, a financial firm that suffered the heartbreaking loss of 66 people to the cowardly and cruel attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. The remarkable story of the recovery and growth of Sandler O’Neill has been told many times since 9/11. Jimmy Dunne is the driving force behind that truly great American story of resilience.
One of the things that struck me about Jimmy as we spoke was how freely he showed emotions about his personal and professional loses of that day. He grieved openly for the loss of dear friends and colleagues. He called his grief a “genuine emotion.” It was a proof of his love and care for those he lost. For him, this was the only manly and honest thing to do, weep for their loss. He had the courage and heart to not let the weight of his significant grief turn his heart toward hatred or fear. In fact, in a very moving eulogy he gave at his best friend’s funeral, he emphatically called out, “You do not give in to hate! You do not let fear run your life!”
It takes tremendous discipline, clarity of vision and moral courage to say this and mean it. I asked Jimmy about why he said this about fear and hatred. They could have easily been justified as his response to that terrible day. The talk at that time in the country was very much about anger. A pervasive fear seemed to grip everyone. He said these were feelings based on “the smallness of a person.” There is nothing small about Jimmy Dunne. With this kind of clarity about the value of what these individuals meant to him and without the distortions of anger or fear, his resolve became galvanized to make his firm successful and to become more than what he was, to become more like those whom he loved and lost.
This kind of response is the best of what it means to be a human being. Jimmy Dunne has made an important point. Emotions like anger and hatred are reactive emotions. They are unthinking reflexes. In that sense, they do not come from reasoned choice. Anatomically, the unthinking reflexive brain stem region from which they come is often referred to as the “reptilian brain,” not the creative and reflective cortex that is unique to humans.
What a man like Jimmy Dunne was able to do in his rejection of hatred and fear, despite heart-wrenching loss, we must all do to one degree or another as we face the uncertainties and dangers of life. That means being able to grieve honestly, understanding that this is really nothing more than continuing to honor those we love when they are gone. Being able to do this successfully leads to what I call a “Compassionate Identity” that deals with integrity and honesty with the world around us. No doubt, Mr. Dunne’s phenomenal financial success, as well as his many deep and longstanding friendships, are a result of his ability to reject the “smallness” we all carry, and exercise instead an habitual choice toward something higher.
If we are unable to make this choice, significant consequences haunt us and ultimately undermine our personal integrity, our happiness and our relationships. The next posts examine two major expressions of these consequences, the “Weakened Identity” and the “Rigid Identity.” Both of these identities are at the center of the national discussion going on now in the aftermath of the shooting in Tucson.
We can disagree. We can compete in the world of ideas. But, hatred and fear not only tear us apart personally, they undermine the fabric of civilization and weaken democracy.
Click here for “Suffering Sucessfully”
Read about Jimmy’s wife, Susan Dunne here: “What Sue Remembers”
A wonderful story from the Balkans: “Compassion, Fantastic Coffee and My Shock”
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All Rights Reserved, John Woodall,MD, Copyright,2011