Do you remember shortly after 9/11 when President George Bush told the American people to keep shopping?
“Get down to Disney World in Florida. Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about the similarities and differences between the season immediately after 9/11 and this late pandemic season. In 2001, there was a “coming together” and also a coming apart, when you consider the social angst brought by Islamophobia and debate on war efforts in the Middle East. In 2020, there was also a “coming together” coupled with a coming apart, as some communities leaned into social cohesion through shared responsibility and others pushed back, with divisions around politics, environmental and social issues amplified in the chaotic and visceral climate of a global pandemic.
There’s a lot to unpack there. My clinical interest right now lies in how I see my loved ones and clients coping with the ambiguous losses of March 2020-present, a season that like 9/11 represents a sort of shattered innocence for the American psyche. In 2001 we learned that it can happen here, that we cannot take our safety for granted. In 2020 we learned that the trappings of everyday life that we rely on to feel “okay” are also not guaranteed. A drink with a friend at a bar after work. A concert. Flying home to see family for the holidays. Shattered innocence… it can bring a sense of gratitude for what we do have, the privileges we enjoy – especially as we have been able to venture into familiar spaces again. But it can also bring a sense that the ground may shift beneath our feet at any moment, because like we learned in 2001, it just might.
I’m noticing a lot of folks saying that they just don’t feel quite right, despite life returning to “mostly” normal. And some are feeling a deeper sense of “unraveling” and existential dread, experiencing more intense mental health challenges than they ever have before. Perhaps it’s because we have exited the uncertainty of the “deep pandemic” time, and it feels safe to finally feel all of the complicated feelings that have arisen in the last two years. Perhaps it’s also because folks feel like they can’t trust the ground beneath their feet: even distractions like shopping and Disney World are no longer guaranteed, and come with ever-shifting contingencies and anxieties. Inequality and deep cracks in our economic and social systems were laid bare more plainly than ever before, and unlike in the post-9/11 days, this time we could not as easily look away.
What can we take for granted? Perhaps just change itself, and human resilience.
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