Eleven Years After 9-11: What Have We Learned About Living With Anxiety?

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“Run from what’s comfortable. Forget safety. Live where you fear to live.”
– Rumi

Today marks the 11th anniversary of the 9-11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Wow. It’s hard to believe more than a decade has passed since the worst act of terrorism in U.S. history. It almost doesn’t seem real. For better or worse, 9-11 changed us and the world forever.

Nearly 3,000 dead, billions in damages and 2 VERY expensive wars later, let’s hope we’ve learned something.

For starters, we’ve learned that box cutters, shampoo bottles, and meat cleavers are prohibited in your carry-on luggage. Were meat cleavers allowed in carry-on bags before 9-11? I’m confused.

Second, 9-11 raised the anxiety level of pretty much everyone living in the Western world, and we’ve just had to learn to deal with it. Because we have no choice. 9-11 shattered our innocence. It brought fear to the fearless and worry to the formerly unperturbed. And that fear, that anxiety, is here to stay.

So what can this unwelcome specter of fear teach us about life?

Anxiety is inevitable
You know that old saw about death and taxes being the only certainties in life? It’s not quite true, because it leaves out the inevitability of fear. As a human being, you can count on being afraid (a.k.a. feeling anxious) just as solidly as you can bank on your own mortality. Everyone is afraid, it’s just that some people cope with fear more skillfully than do others. Being anxious, even anxiously “disordered,” does not make you bad, wrong, weak, stupid, or freakish. It simply makes you human.

Anxiety can be meaningful
I’ve heard so many people say, “I just want to be happy!” over the years. As if simply “being happy” is no big deal. If only it were that easy!

Happiness, as we generally understand it, doesn’t exist. We tend to think of it as a state to be achieved, some static, magical place of permanent enjoyment. Maybe that’s why we put so much stock in the “pursuit” of happiness. What other relationship can you have with a pretend fairyland except one of constant striving? It’s like trying to locate Shangri-La or the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. Good luck with that.

The reality is that life is a mixture of joy, boredom, love, pain, excitement, indifference…and anxiety. It’s this mix, this emotional stew, that makes life rich. Full. Meaningful. All our experience takes place in the context of relative, contrasting emotion. There’d be no love without hate, no joy without pain, and no serenity without fear. I contend that anxiety is an important part of the fabric of a full human life experience.

Anxiety can make you stronger
Of course, it can also completely kick your ass too. Chronic anxiety is not for the faint of heart. Lord knows we’ve all felt victimized by it.

But coping with anxiety is also a lot like lifting weights. It hurts. It’s hard work. It makes you sore. It leads to foul language. But if you do it anyway, you get stronger. You feel better. You look better, and you feel better about yourself. You discover it’s worth the effort. You find that the stumbling block of anxiety becomes the stepping stone that ultimately makes you a better person.

Anxiety can bring us together
One good thing that came from 9-11 was that it brought us together as a country. It didn’t last and was superficial in some ways and downright stupid in others, but at least it opened a discussion about who we are in the world. It lead to a kind of cultural self-examination, something America isn’t very good at and actually really needed. It was a form of togetherness.

Anxiety, the kind born of pain and isolation, makes us reach out. Driving anxiety lead me to develop Driving Peace, but it’s the need, MY need, to connect with other anxious people that keeps it going.

Without anxiety, I wouldn’t have built this website. You wouldn’t be reading this right now. I wouldn’t be meeting and getting to know all the very cool people I’ve met because of this project, and my life would be lonelier and emptier. My fear is what drove me (pun definitely intended) to reach out and try to make the world a better place.

Anxiety can lead to hope
It’s paradoxical, but anxiety can transform a life of despair into one of purpose, hope, and love. Sometimes we have to be forced. Sometimes we need desperation in order to grow.

Talking Heads keyboardist Jerry Harrison once wrote a song with the line, “Sometimes a gun must be held to your head. When there’s nothing left, when there’s nothing left, you can go ahead.” Very true. Anxiety can force us to change, and that’s what hope is: the possibility of things being different.

It’s odd feeling grateful for anxiety, because I hate being afraid as much as anybody. But it’s also been a great teacher. I know it’s an incredibly cliched thing to say, but it’s true. Today, I’m thankful for what it’s taught me. Tomorrow, who knows? I just know I wouldn’t have the life I have today without the admittedly brutal lessons anxiety has brought. And in many ways, I’m a very, very lucky man. Life has purpose and meaning, and we have each other. That’s good enough, and I’ll take it.

PS – Learn more about 9-11 by paying a visit to the 9-11 Memorial website. The lessons (and victims) of that terrible day are too important to forget.

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