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November 11, 2001


Acting Normal When Nothing Is Normal


A POPULAR technique called cognitive-behavioral therapy can be summed up in a phrase: "Fake it till you make it." Instead of endlessly analyzing the deep-seated patterns that erupt in neurotic behavior, just try to get the patient to pretend he is O.K. Coax an agoraphobic to venture out to the mailbox, then the bus stop, then the mall, and after a while the fear of open spaces will subside. What begins as feigned bravery solidifies and becomes real.

With 9/11 giving way to 11/11, and much of the country still treating itself for post- traumatic stress syndrome, this kind of therapeutic charade has become the order of the day. Pretend long enough that you're not afraid of hijackings, bombings, anthrax — that you have not been terrorized — and at some point you will find yourself living normally again.

Feeble attempts at foxhole humor are supposed to be part of the cure — "Doonesbury" cartoons about celebrity-gazing at ground zero, Ellen DeGeneres's quip on the Emmy Awards, which finally ran last week: "What would bother the Taliban more than seeing a gay woman in a suit surrounded by Jews?"

We laugh but even two months later feel guilty for laughing. Humor soothes the soul, yet it also trivializes. Life has become a tangle of psychological double binds.

Fake it till you make it. The hard part is suppressing the doubts that so superficial a treatment — psychological first aid — can possibly expel the sense of powerlessness that comes from trying to live on two different levels, straining to be ordinary in extraordinary times.

We're admonished to continue calmly with life's routines — book flights for business trips and vacations, commute across the Golden Gate, brave the crowds in the department store and post office — all the while watching out for some unspecified threat. We're supposed to shop the economy to recovery, but save enough to weather the coming economic storm.

One of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD, is lingering, pernicious, low-grade depression, a condition that arises from deep irreconcilable conflict. Constantly pulled in two directions, it's hard not to feel like those rats in the psych lab, the ones that get shocked no matter what they do. The paralytic syndrome that results is called "learned helplessness," a technical term for dread.

Not knowing what to do with ourselves, we react to the unprecedented with the same old scripts — fly flags from car antennas, wear ribbons on our lapels —while wondering whether we should be aspiring higher, whether normal is really good enough anymore. We look everywhere for reassurance that the old life is returning. But simultaneously comes the vague yearning for some kind of fundamental change.

The zealots can articulate their visions. Everyone else — the mass of survivors lingering on the political spectrum somewhere between ultraviolet and infrared — struggles for words.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. For a few brief days after Sept. 11, it was possible to believe that the country was undergoing what physicists call a phase change, a sudden transformation in which the molecules of a system rearrange themselves and whole new qualities emerge. Steam orders itself into water, then lockstep into ice. Atoms of iron align themselves to form a magnet. These abrupt changes of state, this emergence of order, can be triggered by the tiniest perturbation: tap on the side of a flask holding a supersaturated solution of sugar and suddenly crystals will form.

The molecules of a society are people, and right after the terror attacks there was an almost instantaneous coherence, a crystallization that couldn't have happened before. Opposites came together in a kind of grand unification —liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, the religious and the agnostic all in a geographic mind meld. Crime rates dropped, along with video rentals of films about terrorism and destruction. Movie and television producers had soul-searching discussions about whether it really is right to sell synthesized violence, even if there apparently is a demand. There was talk of elevating judgment over profit, self-restraint over the bottom line.

Something new seemed to be emerging. Even the late-night talk-show hosts were briefly dumbstruck. Finally here was something that wasn't funny. The end of irony and satire and superficiality were at hand. Calls came for investors to suppress their natural instincts and paradoxically pour money into stocks, defying the terrorists with a bull market, Wall Street's revenge.

Then, inevitably, the coherence came undone. Scientists talk about a quality called hysteresis, the strong tendency of a system to cling to its present state, to resist the imposition of change.

When the markets finally reopened, it was business as usual. The Dow and the Nasdaq plummeted. It was a smart time to sell. Then came the slow, gyrating recovery. The cost of the disaster was analyzed and absorbed, discounted like any economic news.

Art, like the markets, has its own mechanisms for absorbing blows: John Updike, perched in a 10th-floor Brooklyn Heights apartment, coolly described, for "Talk of the Town," the toppling of the towers, as though it were Rabbit Angstrom's Pennsylvania tract house that was burning. The tragedy had been expertly New Yorkerized.

TWO months later, should we be relieved, or disappointed and depressed, that we can turn on the tube and see the same old sitcoms and manufactured dramas? Two nights after the Emmys, the hot new Fox show "24" made its debut with a sexy young terrorist blowing off the door of a 747, stylishly parachuting to safety as the plane and everyone in it explodes. (As a concession to raw sensibilities, footage of the fireball was snipped.)

In this psychological rebound, this regression toward the mean, every institution has refracted the unthinkable through its own prism, in ways so stylized that they border on neurotic-compulsive behavior.

Israelis, provoked by Palestinians, invade the West Bank. Democrats and Republicans squabble over whether airport security should be a function of government ("creating a new bureaucracy") or private industry. Peace groups set up card tables in front of supermarkets, calling for a halt to the bombing — echoes of Vietnam — and some passers-by pointedly ask why they don't hand out their pacifist leaflets in Al Qaeda cells.

We're locked into rituals. In the Southwest, Pueblo Indians have traditionally divided themselves into summer people and winter people, positive and negative, opposite poles in the dynamo of ceremonial life. When the winter people at one pueblo were wiped out by the great flu epidemic of 1918, the population instinctively rearranged itself into North Plaza people and South Plaza people, a division that continues to this day. There appears to be something natural about aligning into opposing camps, whether over the World Series or the Afghan war.

Should we welcome this as resiliency — something to feel good about? Or is it inertia, hysteresis? Comforting evidence of the robustness of the system, or a sad reminder of the stubbornness of the status quo and the slowness of change? Double bind again.

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company