terror hits home: A case for tragic optimism
Paul Wong, Ph.D.
“Our luck has run out,” Jeff Greenfield poignantly
commented on CNN this evening. The terror, which has wounded so
many other countries, has finally hit home.
In a series of terrorist attacks, the Twin Towers
of the World Trade Center in New York and a large section of the
Pentagon in Washington were destroyed in horrific explosions.
What is un-imaginable has happened. The evil
of mass destruction has descended on American soil. The terrorists
have just stuck, with such deadly force and accuracy, the center
of commerce and the nerves-center of the military – symbols of American
wealth and might. The world’s only superpower is under attack, and
she seems so vulnerable.
The world is stunned with disbelief. The nation
is torn with grief by the sheer magnitude of the loss. The final
death toll may well exceed that of Pearl Harbor. President Bush
has declared the worst terrorist attack in US history “A national
How should one cope when terror hits home, and
destroys everything one values dearly? How could one move on with
life after the tragic loss of so many loved ones?
It is not going to be easy to cope with such
a horrendous tragedy, which has shattered the foundations of many
lives. But we cannot let fear cripple us, nor can we simply strike
back in anger. Swift revenge is certainly sweet, but retaliation
by itself is not enough to rebuild broken lives and make the world
a safer place.
I am sure that President Bush will respond with
force and resolve, as indicated in his
speech just a few minutes ago, in terms of increasing national
security and fighting against international terrorism. Indeed, America
will continue to be as beacon of freedom and hope.
But how do we with cope with the tragedy as
After the initial shock, numbness and outrage,
the enormity of the loss will eventually sink in. Tomorrow, Americans
we will wake up to a different country, a different reality – they
are no longer safe from terrorist attacks in their own homeland.
They will also have a heightened sense of the
fragility of life -- all their power and wealth, all their confidence
and competence, will not be able to save them from moments of horrors.
They will need to renew their faith in God for security and comfort
in a time of great uncertainty.
For those whose lives have been devastated by
the evil act, the real struggle to overcome grief, pain and despair
will begin. It is going to be lonely and difficult journey in a
strange and rugged terrain, full of hills and valleys.
It will take time and effort to work through
the grief, and reintegrate the loss with one’s outlook. It will
take a lot of courage and resolve to move on to new purposes, new
life goals. But we can learn from those who have been there.
We certainly can learn something from Dr. Viktor
Frankl, who endured unspeakable horrors in Nazi concentration camps
and survived the Holocaust. He has developed logotherapy, and the
concept of “tragic optimism”, defined as optimism in the face of
tragedy”. Different from positive illusions, tragic optimism refers
to “the capacity to hope in spite of and because of tragic experiences.”
Dr. Frankl has concluded that it is not helpful
to struggle with such questions as "Why did God allow this to happen,"
because there are no satisfactory answers. He thinks that is more
helpful to ask: "What is the meaning for me in this situation? How
can I respond in a courageous and responsible way?"
Tragic optimism is predicated on the defiant
human spirit, the belief that what cannot destroy me makes me stronger.
It has not use for wishful thinking or positive illusions. It is
based on at least five virtues:
- Affirmation enables one to believe in the
meaning and value of life, regardless of the circumstances.
- Acceptance enables one to confront what cannot
be changed – both past traumas and future losses.
- Self-transcendence enables one to feel worthy
of suffering for a higher purpose.
- Faith gives one a flickering light in an
otherwise very gloomy situation.
- Courage enables one to endure the pain and
strive for a better future.
These virtues will triumph over evil and its
aftermath – the pain, grief and fear it has inflicted on the human
soul. These virtues will give birth to tragic optimism – the only
kind of hope which cannot be dashed by terror.