President's Column, September 2001

When 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 tragedy.”

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 individuals?  

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:

  1. Affirmation enables one to believe in the meaning and value of life, regardless of the circumstances.
  2. Acceptance enables one to confront what cannot be changed – both past traumas and future losses.
  3. Self-transcendence enables one to feel worthy of suffering for a higher purpose.
  4. Faith gives one a flickering light in an otherwise very gloomy situation.
  5. 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.

©1998-2007, International Network on Personal Meaning, Unless otherwise noted
Visit for more information.