4 Lessons I Learned About Resilience From The Survivors Of 9/11

I’ve heard friends say that this past week of being inundated with 9/11-anniversary footage and commentary has been overwhelming. I can more than empathize. As the co-author of Project Rebirth: Survival and the Strength of the Human Spirit from 9/11 Survivors, I spent close to two years steeped in interview footage of those who had been directly affected by 9/11 testifying to their experiences of great, unthinkable loss and slow, but sure recovery. The book is a companion to a film of the same name, which premieres at 9 p.m. (EST) on Sunday on Showtime, and both move away from the sensationalistic images of the planes flying into the twin towers and political debate about wars and terrorism. Instead, they focus directly on the stories of individual human beings—in pain, in love, and in recovery.

It turns out that even when your grief evolves within the context of a national tragedy, it is still private and, in that sense, universal in so many ways. We all lose. We all have to pick ourselves up after loss. I learned a lot about grief from the survivors I wrote about, but I learned even more about resilience. Here are a just a few of those precious insights.Every one of us is resilient.

Sometimes it’s easy to feel as if certain people in your life are just luckier, or more courageous, or even more resilient than you are—as if resilience were a gene that got left out of the mix when you were born. But what I learned from both the stories of those who survived terrible tragedies on 9/11 and the experts in the field of trauma and resilience, is that every single person has the capacity to pick themselves up.

For some of us, it comes quickly and robustly; for others it can be slow to kick in. It’s hard to admit that all of us will face trauma and grief at some point in our lives, but it’s reassuring to realize that we all have the capacity for resilience lurking within to help us out when our times inevitably comes.

The more you recover, the better you get at it.

How many times have you called your dad in tears about a drama at work, or dragged yourself off the soccer field with a monster bruise, only to hear that old adage, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger?” Annoying as it can be to hear that phrase, it turns out that it’s actually true. The more we are forced to get over hurt and sadness, the better get at it. Two recent studies, one in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology and one in Psychology & Health, have found that once we develop the tools of resilience, they get easier to use in the future.

In the case of 9/11, we saw that many people who had actually endured trauma before were more equipped to process the events of that day. Part of them recognized, because of previous experiences, that another true ago-old adage: “This too shall pass.”

Individual resilience is most possible in the context of a supportive community.

You know that instinct to call your girlfriends for a night of processing and good food the morning after a break up or a death in the family? It’s right on. The more we surround ourselves with good friends who deeply understand and support us, even in tough times, the more chance we have of, not just recovering, but making meaning of what we’ve been through. Dr. April Naturale, who directed the disaster mental health response called Project Liberty, found that the individuals that were most resilient after September 11th were those that were part of tight-knit communities and neighborhoods.

We all have different ways of recovering.

Tanya Villenueva Tepper lost her fiancé, Sergio, on 9/11 and was sometimes unsure if she would ever recover. She was in her early 30s and on the brink of a big, adult life one day, and the next, she was a widow. She wondered if she would ever feel okay again, ever love again, ever be able to have a family again?

The strangest thing in the world ensured her recovery—a motorcycle. Tanya moved to Miami and took to riding her big bike all over. She found that it was one of the only activities that really shut her grief off and just let her feel a little bit of peace. Tanya teaches us that you never know what form resilience will take, but when you get a glimpse of it, don’t judge it—ride it. You may find that long runs help you feel better, or journaling, or talking with a therapist. Or you may find new strength in being a total biker chick. Today, Tanya lives in Miami with her husband, Ray, and two daughters.

What I’m trying to say is that getting over terrible experiences isn’t easy. But we all have to do it. So I have to applaud the brave people featured in Project Rebirth, who lived through extreme grief, for sharing their recovery. It shows us that we can all stand back up, even after the unthinkable, in time.

Read more of Courtney E. Martin’s work here. And for more on Project Rebirth—the book, the film, and the organization—click here.