September 15, 2001

By Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés


Dear Ones: I am hoping this will help. Because of an avalanche of thousands of emails, from both posters and lurkers worldwide, I am answering in open letter; it is far faster and hopefully will bring the information to the right people more quickly...

The issue people are writing to me about is what I call rolling anxiety and/or feeling profoundly emptied out, lingering sorrowful feelings, and rolling anger. Firstly, all of these are normal reactions to current and ongoing unrest in the world. So do not think you are losing the one brain cell you have left. (I too have about one good one left too-- but it is enough). And do not think you are losing your nerve. You are not. And do not think because you feel tearful about various that you are some wibbley-wabbly weakling. You are not a weakling. You are an invincible soul who is recovering from a huge psychic blow.

You could not have protected yourself from all that has occurred, nor seen it coming, nor have been "better prepared." You are a strong soul who has been ...well, let's call it being ambushed psychically-- meaning we all have been hit from behind-- the main tactic of veritable cowards. In post-trauma times like those we are in right now, some people describe their feelings as "not knowing what hit me," or "feeling empty and just going through the motions of life now," or "feeling despair from time to time without knowing why," "feeling limp and tired, feeling frightened." Here is why. And it is not your fault. To know exactly why we feel so emptied-out is to begin to be free of it.

There is a net that has been cast over us. Some old-timers would call this a pall. This net holds these empty, limp, anxious/angry sets of feelings together. I will try to describe to you what the net is made of, and time-tested actions you can consider taking to free yourself from much of it right away.

In the main, terrorism has composed this net. There may be fragments in it that come from previous shocks, and difficulties in your life; and these may temporarily take on renewed color now. However, in the main-- the underlying factors the net is made of come from the aftershock of terrorist acts. Terrorism is a peculiar kind of assault. It is unlike any other crime. Its aftermath, that is, the survivors' psychological pattern is closest to, but not the same as, the aftermath of violent serial and group rape wherein the rapists are still potentially active and still at large...

-- In terrorism, the numbers of persons affected are huge; terrorism is *meant* to affect thousands and millions of people --all at the same time. Most think terrorists' main aim is to kill people and destroy installations. This is only secondary. (Yes, I know at first this sounds unbelievable, but it is so.) The main goal of terrorism is "intentional trauma" to the living. The murder and mayhem are secondary goals.

-- The concept of causing ongoing psychic injury to thousands and millions "all at the same time" is the pivotal intent of terrorists. Terrorists understand, if only in their diseased unconscious's, that accomplishing such will unleash a greater communicable and spreading "psychic infection" than any biological or germ warfare could ever hope to achieve.

-- This "infection" that terrorists hope to circulate is that of innocent persons becoming afraid of life, afraid of the future; of causing people to put off the living of life, to move in ways that are far less than their previous free selves, for people to be locked into feeling ill, angry and/or anxious. The effect of living in such a crouch hurts the human spirit and heart. The main goal of terrorism is "intentional psychological trauma." Murder and mayhem are only secondary and sometimes even tertiary goals.

-- Terrorism is willful psychological assault; a conscious and planned assault against the minds and hearts and spirits of a large group of persons. I repeat this only if it be necessary to press past the reader's ego's resistance to this hideous truth: In terrorism, murder and mayhem are secondary to the primary goal of ruining the hearts and hopes of others. This is partly why terrorism is difficult to comprehend by reasoned minds as anything but the most grotesque form of manifest evil. We can barely conceive of thinking to psychically injure others so.

-- There are other secondary goals to terrorism. Any and all of them are the sickest imaginable. But the above is how terrorists seek to cast their net of "sickness" over all survivors and victims, over the living--- by trying to deprive you of esperanza, fullest and freely felt Hope. By trying to limit your libre, your Freedom, your living life as a completely free person, shoulders proud, head up, mind on goodness, and love for all, and pleasures that bring peace and happiness.

There are many time-tested ways to cut through this net....

Here are some additional which are *very* specific: It is peculiar to find how strongly that poisonous net holds when one is unaware of what it is made of, and how easily it falls apart when one consciously begins to contradict its malicious urgings:

--Refuse to dwell on what psychically depletes you of hope, contentment and ease. Test your thoughts every day; are my thoughts becoming obsessive and depriving me of any of these God-given rights?

--Curtail your viewing of images and contain your listening to sensationalistic, speculatory "news".

During post-trauma times, sometimes an extremely difficult or disheartening set of thoughts attach themselves to us; they are almost like a gang cruising around looking to harass someone. Terrorists are counting on this to happen to everyone. Refuse this set of thoughts. Use the discipline of your mind. You may try to be gentle with these intrusive thoughts, but we find because they are vulgar in and of themselves, that being forceful is better: Say to them, "Be gone!" and "Out of my way!" For some, saying "f-off! and I mean it!" is just the right way. If you are an old believer like me, it is as effective to assert, "Get thee behind me !" My grandmother used to say, "Just because someone presents you with a dog poop on a pretty plate doesn't mean you have to eat it."

-- Dwell in what strengthens you. For some it is reading, others physical activity, others, crafts. There are so many things and combinations of things. ***Remember, what brings you peace tends to be the same as what strengthens you.***

-- Clean up your kitchen around food especially, (time to give your body what it needs for its equilibrium and best strength now) . Do not assault your own body by making it work extra hard to throw off toxins now.

-- Rest (real rest, even if only a few hours at night, even if, like many are, awakening many times in the night). Do not entertain "bad thoughts;" do not allow yourself to fall into a pit of them. Think instead of the greatest beauty and love you know. Discipline your mind to stay with those images; they are medicines for what has hurt you.  The key words are 'practice discipline.' If you do not know how to discipline your mind, think of learning to meditate. (Sit and empty your mind of thought, concentrate on your breath instead; when intrusive thought comes in, start over by emptying your mind and focusing on your breath again instead.) If you do not care for meditation, think of how you train a beloved dog to stay and heel. Practice in that mode.

Some may precipitously tell you it is time to "move on." This may be said by some, not because anyone is mal-lingering, but because the speaker is fatigued and emptied out and cannot bear to hear of any more suffering now.

More correctly, the truth is that every moment is time to "keep moving," the way a potter’s hands hold the clay on the wheel and draw it upward; the way a weaver sends the shuttle through the warp, the way a walker filled with heart walks forward through new terrain.  That is "moving on" in the best sense while giving proper honor to one’s thoughts and feelings about the past.

-- Insofar as you are able, pick your endeavors carefully. Now is an opportunity to drop various endeavors that deplete you or to join up with people/matters/groups that invigorate.

-- Give yourself to humor as often as possible. As a grandmother, mother and clinician, I am positive that life challenges are borne best with two strengths; patience and a sense of humor. If you have not been given these two as innate talents, develop them as skills. Watch others who are skilled at these, and do likewise.

-- Refuse to think you are less able than you were before this great shock. You are not less. Regardless of flaws, quirks or wobbles-- you are in soul, actually more shining than you were before. Many of the ego’s unneeded layers fall away in the midst of a great wind. What matters most has never shined so brightly as it does right now.

-- When you cannot think of anything to say to console others, I tell you this absolute truth; during the journey back from a great shock, the only thing those who are traumatized really and truly remember-- is kindness . So do not fear that you cannot think of words enough to console others. Your kindness to others will stand stronger and be more healing than any words you could ever compose.

-- Your work in the world at this time, as it has been at any and every time, is best stated in the Hebrew phrase, tikkun olam . This means to every day help repair the world soul, by mending what you are able to of what is in disrepair within you and near you. To do this to the best of your ability is sacred duty. In this way the world soul is tended to.

-- With regard to goodness and things that are good for you and others, do what you always do. Do not cease goodness or pleasures that bring good. One of my deeply held quotes from the Qu’ran, the holy book of Islam is this: I have written it on my wall above my desk: "When you die, God will call upon you to account for all the permitted pleasures you did not enjoy while on earth."

-- Continue to implement life dreams. If you don't have one, you're overdue. Get out your thinking cap. Now is the time. Now has always been the time.

-- Use your intuition to guide you through these days. It will not fail you. Some call this great gift that every person possesses--insight, some call it "sense," some like us old believers, call it Guardian Angel--which for me incidentally is no small little feathery thing flapping around, but more -–sort of like a fierce-gentle Guido with wings.

-- It will take time for this shock we are in now to be softened, to be cleansed from our cells outward, to pass from intrusive thoughts, from our semi-wilted spirits. But the time will come, and even though the healing is gradual, it will be completed. You will see. Be gentle with yourself; you are stronger than you have ever realized. I do not say this lightly. As a woman who has over the years taken some of the worst hits life can offer, and as a clinician who has for years sat with thousands of others in Sorrow’s kitchen, you can rely on my words as Truth.

I hope you will remember your peace, for you are whole in the way that matters most. The spirit may flag, the mind may temporarily boggle, the body may be exhausted, but I can assure you, your soul has not been harmed. Yes, this is deeply and unequivocally true. From years and years of three-times-a-day prayer, I know a thing or two. As I lift people up in prayer so that their needs can be seen by heaven, I consistently see that the soul is forever a blazing light in each person. No matter what has occurred in one’s life, no matter how great the woundings, no matter how horrified they have been, no matter what they have been subjected to-- the great light of the soul can never be extinguished. This is your strength. It has always been your strength. Rely on it now.

I am thinking of you all greatly today--which is a day when sun is trying hard and making progress to shine through the fog here where I live in the Rockies. Just right.


No lack of love,

Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Ph.D.


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