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Despite the fact that I've lost no one personally in the recent tragedies, I live and work very near Dulles Airport and the Pentagon and have felt like my personal world has been turned upside down. I was actually happy to hear the constant, often-too-loud presence of airplane noise return to the airport, though that was quickly followed by a sense of foreboding about what my neighbors, who work for the airlines, are facing.
Then there are the constant images on the television and on the Internet about terrorism and suffering and war, and people in my own community are arguing and turning on each other as they express their opinions about what the future holds, sometimes attacking U.S. foreign policy and blaming our country for recent events.
I am a community leader and don't know how to lead under these circumstances. I feel like the world has gone crazy, and it is especially frightening knowing that I have been no more burdened by recent events than anyone else, and that I am a generally strong person who is normally well-balanced emotionally.
How long will it take to return to my usual optimistic, loving self? Where has it gone, and why, exactly?
Your email so clearly articulates what so many people are feeling. That's why I want to post this. It will help others just to read it.
To answer your question about when and if your essential optimism and belief in human goodness will return, I say, "yes, of course it will, and it won't take so long to reappear." We are self-regulating organisms, after all, and we tend to return to our basic natures and paths, after unusual side-trips.
Why are you feeling this way? Because you're empathic and feel all the pain around you, which in this case is huge, terrible, and deep. And you also feel helpless to fix it, which is probably unusual for you. Then, on top of that, if you have a tendency to be self-critical, and think you don't have the right to feel this way because you haven't suffered the way so many of these others have, then it tends to stick around longer.
So give yourself the space to grieve and feel horrible. We've all lost a lot. We really must respect that.
Of course, suffering the loss of our basic feelings of safety and optimism can't compare to losing a spouse, a child, a friend, or an office full of colleagues. Nor can it compare to seeing, smelling, and experiencing the horror first hand, the way those heroic early responders are doing. That's a whole other league of pain.
But don't denigrate your own suffering. Give it space and leave it be. Just feel it. Talk about it with friends. Do what you can for whom you can. It doesn't have to be huge. (My massage therapist on Martha's Vineyard borrowed a massage chair, took her golden retriever, and got on the ferry to go to New York City where she could give free massages in Union Square and to the guys in the fire station in her old neighborhood. That was enough to return her to herself, giving what she had to give. And noting all those generous acts coming from so many others will help to restore you to yourself too.
And, at strategic times, you'll simply have to escape from all the pain and sorrow and fear. After a day of being alone, glued to the TV set, horror struck and silently weeping on September 11th, I finally stumbled out of my house and went to see a beautiful, funny, people-loving Italian movie that evening, Bread and Tulips. It was a perfect temporary antidote and respite from being alone, from absorbing images of horror. It didn't last long, and I didn't expect it to, but it was great while it lasted. So do something nourishingly shallow, like watching a happy flick.
And remember: This too shall pass. Maybe things will change in how we live and perceive the world. But we'll adjust. We'll smile again.