Coping with Now, Not Thinking About Later

John McManamy Health Guide
  • My favorite columnist is Tom Friedman, who writes on foreign affairs for the NY Times. Mr Friedman has a new book out, but I just started reading one of his old ones, "From Beirut to Jerusalem," published in 1989. The book chronicles a decade of Friedman's experiences as a Middle East correspondent for UPI and the NY Times, first in Lebanon, then in Israel.

    Lebanon had been ripped apart by four years of civil war, compounded by foreign intervention, when Friedman first arrived on the scene in 1979. Civil war is something of a misnomer, as civil is the last word to come to mind when describing the state of random and senseless violence to which the country had degenerated.

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    In 1982, the apartment complex where Friedman lived was reduced to a pile of rubble by a planted explosive, killing three Palestinians who happened to be house-sitting for him at the time. It turned out that the bomb had been set off by a Palestine refugee with a grievance against a family of fellow refugees in the building.

    As for bringing the perpetrator to justice, you and what army? Literally, what army? There were hundreds to choose from.

    Things had fallen apart. The center wasn't holding. There was nothing left to keep in check man's inherently savage nature, man against man, what Thomas Hobbes wrote about in "Leviathan" when he described life as being "nasty, brutish, and short."

    Think of an adult version of "Lord of the Flies."

    Yet, this didn't happen. Instead, as Friedman describes it, as things disintegrated into chaos and terror people sought order and comfort. They reached out to neighbors, people they had never even bothered saying hello to when life was normal. They became concerned about one another, took an interest in how their lives were going. They extended a helping hand. They formed their own associations. They organized their own community services.

    They also learned to selectively screen out the sights and sounds of their surreal environment. A cordoned-off street from a car bombing, for instance, simply meant you found another way to get where you were going rather than hightail it back home and cower under your bed. Gunfire? Unless someone was pointing a gun directly at you at close range, you paid no attention.

    Sometimes, all hell would break loose. Then, people would hunker down in their homes while shopkeepers shuttered their shops. But at the first indication of the "all clear," the streets would be jammed, and the shops would open for business. Even if the cease-fire lasted only one hour, people were determined to take advantage of every single minute.

    Their minds also worked overtime trying to bring a sense of rational to the irrational. Bizarre conspiracy theories filled in as explanations for events that couldn't be explained. This, at least, gave the appearance of someone being in charge. Alternatively, individual fault was assigned to such tragedies as a neighbor walking into a random bullet, as if the victim had a choice, as if people lived in a world where they could make choices.

  • By the time Tom Friedman sat down to write his book, the people of Lebanon had been in a state of constant war for 14 years. What they had endured, Friedman pointed out, was beyond psychological understanding. What we knew then about stress and trauma, he wrote, came from single events, such as hurricanes.

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    Indeed, the first "live, on location" stress/trauma studies coming out of a war were published in 2000, 11 years after Friedman's book. These involved Albanian and Serbian populations, nearly all who had experienced a series of very recent traumatic events, from fleeing their homes to the death of a loved one. Four in ten experienced mental illness. Adopting less conservative criteria doubled that number.

    According to Friedman, the mental toll tends to come after the horror, not while the tragedy is still unfolding. Amazingly, while all hell is breaking loose, people tend to be resilient beyond imagination. They manage. They cope. They only fall apart later.

    No one can confuse Southern California, where I now live, with Lebanon. But as I write this, three devastating fires are raging in areas ringing LA, a hundred and a bit miles north of me. A thousand people have lost their homes. The smoke blots out the sky. Armageddon hovers.

    Massive fires are no longer rare events here. Last year, around this time, I vividly recall observing faint plumes of smoke from a vantage point near my home. The Santa Ana was blowing up a storm. All hell was about to break loose.

    Yesterday, out on the back patio, I greeted my next door neighbor. The sky was clear. Santa Ana was sleeping. We talked about my two kittens. Right now, life is good. As for later, it's pretty clear no one wants to think about later.

Published On: November 17, 2008