Today’s blog is an excerpt from my book, Fortytude: Making the next decades the best years of your life—through the 40s, 50s, and beyond. September 11, 2011 is just around the corner—the tenth anniversary of one of the most profound moments in our history.
Everyone has a story to tell about that day, and many, many people suffered a terrible loss. The following section is on Spirituality—and coping, and includes my story from that terrible day.
In this day and age, people have distinct views about the meaning of the word “spirituality.” The past few decades in America have seen a huge rise in yoga, spiritual retreat centers, Kabbalah, astrology, New Age practices, and Buddhism. In fact, a December 2009 Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life Survey revealed that many Americans blend faiths and practices, and don’t feel a need to place themselves in any one religious category. For example, they might attend a Christian church some Sundays, but also practice meditation to calm their minds and visit psychics for guidance in life decisions. One-third of those surveyed said that they regularly attend religious services at more than one place, and one quarter reported sometimes attending services of a different faith. About 25 percent said that they thought of yoga as a spiritual practice, and the same number believed in reincarnation and astrology.
And yet this mix and match approach to spirituality does not seem to correspond with a weakening in faith as a whole. On the contrary, spiritual experiences and beliefs appear to be on the rise. The number of Americans who reported having had a “moment of sudden religious insight or awakening” was higher (49%) than the number who hadn’t (48%) for the first time in the survey’s nearly 50-year history. A surprising 29 percent of those surveyed felt they had been in touch with a dead person—up from just 18 percent in 1990.
The Pew report findings indicate that Americans are bending religious pursuits and concepts to suit them, rather than trying to fit themselves into a particular mold. We are free, in the modern era, to experiment, involving ourselves in a variety of spiritual practices that we feel make a real difference in our lives.
Though many of the women I surveyed for Fortytude chose spirituality as one of the Five Core Values that they either were incorporating or wanted to create more space for in their daily lives, their reasons for choosing this value varied. The defining words next to spirituality were: God, faith/trust, eternity, and religion. The women with strong church affiliations, such as those from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, circled the words God and religion. And yet many other women explained that they based their choice on the words faith, trust, and eternity. They further elaborated that in order to move forward in their lives, they had to trust in themselves, others, and the basic goodness of the universe. Some women circled spirituality but next to it wrote down their own words, such as: peace, love, serenity, stillness, wholeness, and quiet mind.
The women also pointed out that spirituality takes on the greatest importance when we go through the most difficult times in our lives: when we lose a parent, spouse, sibling, dear friend or, heaven forbid, child; when we get divorced or separate from a long-time partner; when we get ill; when we lose a job. These moments when our presumptions and assumptions about life are most challenged, we feel a strong pull to reach out to others and connect with a life force larger than our own.
I must admit that prior to September 11, 2001, I didn’t pay much attention to spirituality. I occasionally read books by spiritual authors such as Deepak Chopra, but I never sought to affiliate myself with a specific religion, doctrine, or movement. But then, on that clear blue sunny day when I awoke to my mother’s frantic phone call at 8:30 am, everything changed.
I had flown in from San Francisco to New York’s JFK airport at midnight the night before, so I was half-asleep when I finally picked up the phone. “Mom?” I mumbled.
“Sarah! Turn on the television! New York City is under attack,” my mother said with genuine urgency.
I simply could not make sense of what she was saying until I followed her orders and saw images of the Twin Towers in flames on every TV news station. I couldn’t move, yet all I wanted to do was run down to the buildings and help those poor people who were frantically waving their shirts out the windows, trying to attract the attention of anyone who could save them from their doom.
It was then I noticed that the streets were eerily quiet, as if we were in the midst of a huge snowstorm. I paced the apartment for the remainder of the morning. Then I received a call from the administrator at St. Vincent’s Hospital in midtown. She told me that the hospital was in serious need of mental health practitioners, social workers, and psychologists to greet the families and friends of the missing loved ones and help them locate their people—dead or alive.
I immediately rushed down to the hospital. Out front, hordes of people wandered aimlessly with blank looks on their faces. Many posted “Missing” signs printed with photos of their loved ones’ faces on the hospital walls and nearby lampposts. Billows of smoke still emanated from downtown.
The administrator guided me downstairs to a windowless room with a number of small tables and chairs set up for the volunteers. She then handed me a directory of names of individuals who had been saved from the buildings. The line of people waiting anxiously to talk to someone who could impart reliable information wound far down the corridor.
The experience was surreal. Never in a million years would I have imagined that I would be looking into the eyes of hundreds of people from all walks of life, all of who had been affected by one horrible murderous act. I tried to help them find their loved ones by searching the directory, calling one hospital after another in the tri-state area, and then contacting the morgues.
I met with over 175 people during the 14 hours I spent in that dingy basement. But out of all those people, one stood out for me. He was a 24-year old blonde-haired, blued-eye kid from New Jersey whose brother was an employee at Cantor Fitzgerald, a bank with offices in the World Trade Center. Judging from his build, he easily could have been a lacrosse player or wrestler.
As I began the normal procedure, asking his brother’s name and background information, I looked up and saw, really saw, the young man with bloodshot eyes sitting across from me. I didn’t know what to do, so I asked if he was hungry. He nodded his head yes. I gave him a granola bar supplied by the hospital. But the young man couldn’t even open the wrapping because his hands were trembling so terribly. He looked me in the eye and said, “I know he is dead. I just know it. Weird. I just talked to him this morning on his way to work.”
Out of the blue, I thought to ask him, “Do you believe in God?”
He said, “Yes, I do. I’m Catholic.”
I said, “Your brother will need your prayers. Go to church and pray.” I was at a loss as to how to comfort this man. Yet I felt that at that moment, the only option was to pray. I couldn’t convince him that his brother was alive. In fact, I was almost 100 percent sure he wasn’t, since Cantor Fitzgerald’s offices were on the 110th floor. I just obeyed a powerful instinct that told me it would help this man to seek comfort in his connection to God.
For the first time in my life, I realized how necessary spirituality is for us humans. During those times when we are confronted by terrible atrocities like the events of 9/11, we need a source of comfort and a way to give our lives meaning. I have no idea what happened to that young man, but I keep him and all the other families I assisted on that dreadful day close to my heart.
In this section, we will meet women who have survived the deaths of their loved ones with strength, grace, and resilience. We also will encounter courageous women who have reinvented themselves in mid-life, leaving an abusive relationship, coming out of the closet in spite of a very traditional upbringing, and recovering from near-bankruptcy. And we will discover the wide variety of spiritual paths that women have taken to find their way home, from teaching yoga, to converting to Judaism, to devoting their lives to serving others.
Spirituality—when it comes to women with fortytude, at least—is not about achieving enlightenment or mindlessly obeying a set of rules, but rather looking for inner peace. It helps you understand your life experiences and give them meaning. It provides a way to take yourself out of your own head, so that you can delight in the smallest things. It suggests that you have faith and trust in something bigger than yourself, and are able to hold onto a sense that there is more to life than the items in your daily planner. It reflects the crafting of your own approach to religion and purpose, love and loss, eternity, and your soul.