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Howard Z. Lorber, csw

                    Psychotherapist & Anthropologist


Coping With Powerful Events

-- Howard Z. Lorber, CSW

I only know that many of these exceptional moments were with them a peculiar horror in physical collapse; they seemed dominant; myself passive.  This suggests that is one gets older one has a greater power for reason to provide an explanation; and that this explanation blunts the sledge-hammer force of the blow.... [when] I receive these sudden shocks [,] after the first surprise, I always feel instantly that they are particularly valuable.... I hazard the explanation that a shock is at once in my case followed by the desire to explain it.  I feel that I have had the blow; but it is not, as I thought as a child, simply the blow from an enemy hidden behind the cotton wool of daily life; it is or will become a revelation of some order; it is a token of some real thing behind appearances; and to make it real by putting it into words.  It is only by putting it into words that I make it whole; this wholeness means that it has lost its power to hurt me; it gives me, perhaps because by doing so I take away the pain, a great delight to put the severed parts together.

-- Virginia Woolf

-- "A Sketch of the Past "

-- in Moments of Being

Our lives are filled with events, some of which are so small and "usual" as they hardly reach our notice, and others of which are so intense that by their power alone they seem to become, somehow, central to our lives. There are actually many sorts of experiences that we have that can be characterized as "powerful events."  Not all of these are painful or negative, as was the destruction of the World Trade Center.  Some of them are quite beautiful and positive, like "being in love."  All of them, however, fix themselves in our experience and require us to respond.

When we "fall in love" we experience a powerful event, or series of events, that puts the loving and the lover at the center of our experience.  And, of course, there's a full range of emotion, most of which is filled with delight, joy, physical pleasure, and contentment.  Even though there may be some more painful experiences associated with "being in love," our overall sense of it is usually that of happiness and enjoyment.  While "being in love" is a 'normal' human experience, it is not at the forefront of everyday life.  After the initial phase, though the sense of loving remains, everyday life continues to reach out and beckon us, returning to its rightful central position in our attention.  We do not forget our love, nor the images and situations that make up our memory of it.  We have songs, photos, sites, smells and tastes that remind us and evoke for us some of the experience.  We, of course, hope this is reexperiencing is close to what we sensed when the feelings were fresh and new. Yet we know we are not experiencing the past.  We are, rather, experiencing our memory and our present reality.

When we experience the kind of powerful events that which happened 11 September 2001, they are painful, frightening, shocking and sad.  These sorts of events are called "traumatic," or in corporate language, "critical incidents."  They too, as they happen, become central in our lives because of their intensity. Our physical reactions make them intense because this is how the body and mind function to help keep us alive.  Just like any other intense experience, the power of the event to touch and move us has a kind of 'natural history' or set of responses -- physical, mental, emotional and spiritual -- that includes a general time frame. We do not forget the painful and even horrifying experiences we had but more and more everyday life reaches out and beckons us once again.  It begins to return to its rightful central position in our attention.  We gradually move the painful and horrible from the center to the periphery so it no longer organizes our lives.  Ultimately, although the memories remain sad and horrible, their intensity flows away and we allow ourselves to learn and grow from the ways we have coped with the experience.

The feelings we experience when a powerful event intrudes itself into our lives are normal and natural parts of our lives. They are the means by which our bodies and minds face intense situations that we may encounter and come to terms with them. The experience of grieving and the experience of loving are essential to us as humans; so too is the process of moving the experience of powerful events out from the center to the periphery so we can move forward in life.