07/29/2013 12:59 pm ET Updated Sep 28, 2013

When Catastrophe Strikes -- Think Again

From nations to towns to families, catastrophe is a feature of life that, at least once, will grab us all by the throat. There is no way to go through life without some disaster -- environmental, criminal, biological, military -- that will afflict every person on the planet and turn their lives and hearts inside out and upside down. When these times come it is natural for us to mourn, and mourn often for a long time.

But how much is enough mourning and how much is too much? How long should nations or religions mourn past catastrophes? There is, of course, a difference between mourning, commemoration and the honor of memory. We can permanently honor the past, honor those who we have lost on specific days and at specific times. But mourning is different, mourning is a deep and constant state, and when it goes on too long it can harm us, make us half of what we could be, even destroy our better selves and make us bitter or violent.

I have seen my share of tragedy in the work I do, I have worked in conflict zones around the world for much of my life, especially in the Middle East. Nothing ever prepares you for the pain and suffering of parents who lose children to senseless warfare, or children bereft of family. No one prepares you for hundreds of Syrians in a desperate refugee camp coming up to you with agony in their eyes combined with respectful smiles, telling all the horror and not understanding a word of what they are saying. Nothing prepares you for the trauma of leaving them behind, pulling yourself from their arms and hands and fingers and mournful eyes, jumping back behind a barbed wire fence. They are traumatized and mourning, but so are you.

What do you say to people in such circumstances? Do you mourn with them? Do you try to comfort them with some rethinking of their situation? Do you dare, when in fact there is often very little you can do for them in the short term? Mourning and comforting mourners in the face of catastrophe is a wrenching challenge to our very humanity.

Contemporary psychology and age-old wisdom have developed an interesting meeting of the minds lately on coping with catastrophe. "Cognitive reappraisal" is the term that captures what many experiments have observed in people who are resilient, who bounce back quickly from catastrophe and who as a result live longer with fewer damaging permanent effects. It refers to the habit of the mind and heart that looks at some catastrophic event -- even torture in prison -- and sees in this experience the basis of meaning in a future life (a goal, a mission, a way of seeing the world in a new way that could not have been possible without the catastrophe). It is not a masochistic wish for catastrophe but a discovery of meaning through it.

Ancient wisdom of religious traditions sees this as looking for God's hand in all situations, trust in God, see everything as for the good, or as the will of God. All of these spiritual habits of the mind are in fact forms of cognitive reappraisal. They don't work as well anymore for those of us who see the world as guided by scientific law and the laws of chance, but the lesson is the same. There must be meaning through catastrophe, there must be purpose, there is life afterward, and in fact sometimes a far more meaningful life with a far greater appreciation for the rare gifts associated with growing up and old on this beautiful blue globe.

The biggest problem with cognitive reappraisal is that it is very risky to teach this to those who are in pain. Each person needs to come to this on their own, through their own thinking. Often you will see people come to a house of mourning where there was a bad tragedy, and they start telling the mourners how to think of all this as for the best. This is disrespectful, hurtful and counterproductive.

As we all face moments in our family, our nation or on our planet when neighbors are going through a living hell, we need to work harder at giving enough comfort and support to mourners in catastrophe. They need to have the space and the time and the support to think again about the catastrophe, to discover meaning and purpose to life, and thus help rebuild themselves and their communities. This is what we owe each other as human beings, as neighbors on this planet.

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