Jewish World Review July 2, 2002 / 22 Tamuz 5762

American Spirituality

By Dr. Abraham Twerski, M.D. | I feel very uneasy when people refer to "the silver lining" in a tragedy. I am less but nevertheless somewhat upset by statements that experiencing trauma can result in positive changes in ourselves. These terms, when used in reference to the Holocaust or the World Trade Center, seem to imply that these catastrophes had a redeeming feature. I cannot think of these horrors as being in any way beneficial.

But I know what people mean by these terms. No connotation of "redeeming feature" is intended. Rather, trauma does cause change, and some of the changes following trauma may be positive. However, they can only be positive if we try to grow out of trauma. If we neglect the opportunity for growth, we will compound the tragedy.

In the days of the "cold war" between the United States and the Soviet Union, there was concern that Russia might launch a nuclear attack against us. A recovering alcoholic who had not had a drink for twelve years said, "If I hear on the radio that Russia has fired a nuclear missile which will land in and totally destroy New York in sixteen minutes, I will run to a tavern and 'tie one on' as never before." Although this man had abstained from alcohol for twelve years, he had not advanced one bit in spirituality. His greatest delight was still getting drunk. He was abstinent only because he feared he might lose his job or family. If there was no longer any reason to avoid these consequences of drinking, he would pursue his greatest aspiration: getting drunk.

A truly spiritual person who knew he had only sixteen more seconds to live might hug his children or tell his wife how happy she had made him. If he was religiously oriented he might pray. He would not think of squandering the last few moments of life.

Some psychologists said that the exposure of our vulnerability may cause us to rearrange our priorities. For many Americans, making money has been the prime concern. We may have given lip service to spirituality. Our national heroes have been entertainers and athletes, many of whom do not lead exemplary lives. The shock and magnitude of the World Trade Center attack and the realization that there may be more terrorist attacks may make us rethink our values and goals. Our young people may take the firefighters and other rescuers as their heroes. Every so often we hear desperate appeals from the blood banks for donors. The long lines of people waiting to donate blood may have awakened our sense of mutuality and responsibility.

The pictures of the massacres in Bosnia and Somalia, graphic as they may be, depicted happenings thousands of miles away. But the World Trade Center was in our own backyard. It is the mail that comes to our own offices and homes that may be deadly. The myth of America's invincibility has been shattered.

We are urged to go back to normal living. True. But was our pre-September 11 normal? We have been aware of terrorism for several decades. We knew there was much anti-American sentiment in other countries, but we kept on living as if it did not affect us. Living in denial is not really normal.

The shock of September 11 may have awakened us, not only to battle against terrorism but to think more seriously about the purpose of life. One psychologist whose office was two blocks from Ground Zero and who was immobilized by the shock of the buildings collapsing was let to safety by a client. "In therapy, I had helped to empower him. He took care of me, reduced my panic and got me to breathe. He saved my life.

"I think I witnessed what I did for a reason and survived for a reason. I used to coach executives to thrive in the marketplace and make more money. Now I want to help them find a way to put the good in business and be kinder and more resilient in the face of economic downslide. Finding meaning and purpose in the face of tragedy is one of the most powerful fear-reducers."

I strongly disapprove of people who "know" the reason for catastrophes, but this should not deter us from rethinking our life style.

We can enhance and deepen our lives through developing our spirituality. What can we do to enhance our spirituality? In order to do so, we must understand just what spirituality is.

The human being is a composite creature, comprised of a body + "something else." The body is essentially an animal body. What is the "something else?"

The "something else" is the sum of all the features, in addition to intellect, that are unique to the human being, which animals in the wild lack. For example, human beings can learn from the history of past generations; animals cannot. People can reflect on the purpose and goal of life; animals cannot. People can think about what they must do to become better people. I doubt that animals think consciously of self-improvement. Human beings can deny gratification of physical drives for moral and ethical reasons; animals cannot. Except for maternal instinct, animals in the wild probably do not sacrifice of their comfort and possessions to help a strange animal. People can be altruistic.

The aggregate of all the unique features of a human being that distinguishes man from animals is what I call the "spirit." If a person implements the elements of the spirit, he is being "spiritual." Spirituality, then, is being and becoming the finest human being one can be.


Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): A very real condition
Helping our kids deal with trauma
The Creator helps those who help themselves
Knowing what to expect
Psychological fallout in the shadow of terrorism
Self-esteem in the face of world terrorism

Abraham J. Twerski, M.D. is a psychiatrist and ordained rabbi. He is the founder of the Gateway Rehabilitation Center in Pittsburgh, a leading center for addiction treatment. An Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, he is a prolific author, with some 30 books to his credit. He has recently launched a new 12 step program for self esteem development Send your comments by clicking here.

© 2002, Abraham J. Twerski, M.D.