Coping With Crisis - Teens Turn to Their Faith
by Celia Straus
"I was totally sombered by the terrorist acts on September 11th, but I didn't cry. Then, later, I went to the teen mass our church holds every Sunday at 5:00. I didn't want to go but my mother talked me into it. We were singing the "Lord's Prayer" before communion, and all of a sudden I started crying. It was a release. I'm so glad I went." Lauren, 17, Catholic
"My practice is comforting. It teaches that suffering can be relieved. That we can turn this poison into medicine. At first I had this feeling of hope. I thought, 'now's our time to retard the cycle of attack and retaliation,' but I was wrong." Monica, 21, Buddhist
"Coping with this tragedy has been sorta double the work. I am an American so I am part of the millions who have been hurt and horrified by these attacks which have affected our daily lives. But I'm also a Sikh, and so I have also felt like an alien, who people stare at, not in amusement, but in anger and fear." Sunmit, 16, Sikh
When the tragic events of September 11 occurred, our family sat glued to the television set along with the rest of the nation. At some point during those first terrible hours of images of mass destruction, my two teenage daughters confronted me, saying "You believe in God. You are always telling us to trust in His divine plan for us. How could this horror be part of that plan? How can God be love and exist in all living things when thousands of innocent people have just been killed?" They were confrontative because this time evil had occurred in their country, in cities familiar to them, (we live in Washington, DC) on a scope unimaginable until now. They watched evil being televised as it happened and then they watched it again and again and again, and they felt vulnerable. Angry. Betrayed.
They feel betrayed because, like many teenager children of baby boomers, they had been promised that they could expect life to be mostly good, not always fair, but filled with unlimited opportunities. And although, we had made them aware of terrible events in the history of our planet that demonstrated evil on such a grand scale that it was and continues to be mind numbing, we also said that these events were lessons they should learn from but wouldn't have to experience, not now, not here. We were proven wrong on that day, and I had no easy answers for them. However, what I did discover in the next few weeks was that they are not alone in their struggle to accept the unacceptable. Hundreds of teens logged on to websites, including mine, or gathered together at their schools, places of faith and community to express their feelings about what happened. And most have, in fact, turned to their faith or spiritual practice to better understand and cope with the heart-breaking tragedy of September 11 and the days that followed.
Scott, a Unitarian Universalist, is sixteen. " I was watching it on television, and I felt, for the first time that this was going to have a direct impact on my life. A lot of my classmates had parents working in the Pentagon and had no idea whether or not they were alive. I witnessed a lot of large prayer circles and meditation as well as flat out shock. I realized that the best way for me to be supportive to my friends was to respect their beliefs and help them keep their faith. If they believed in God, I let them know that God was protecting their family."
Radha, a 22 year old Hindu, was at his computer job. "I was on the Internet when I saw the towers fall. I didn't believe it at first. But then later I got to thinking about what our scriptures say about cumulative karma and how our material world is filled with unrest and turmoil. In some respects we bring these acts on ourselves. All I wanted to do was to support my community."
Monica, 16, a Buddhist, agrees. "I wasn't surprised at all. I wasn't terrorized. These acts of violence are happening to people all over the earth. In my practice, there is no separation between body and mind. There is only the here and now. I was concerned for others, not myself."
For Lauren, a senior in high school and a practicing Catholic, the experience has made her faith even stronger. "If I believe that this terrible event is God's burden, not mine, I can cope better. It definitely helps me out." The acts of terrorism have also heightened her feelings of patriotism. "I was thinking of applying to the Naval Academy, but I wasn't sure I wanted to spend that many years serving in the military. Now there's no question. I'm applying."
Etan, another high school senior and a conservative Jew, also feels his faith has become more relevant. "I think faith, whatever you believe, however you do your practice, helps you. You have a doctrine to put events you don't understand into some kind of context. You don't get so lost or panicky wondering what will happen now, or next. Your faith centers you."
Yet some young people are angry. Tanya, a sixteen year old girl says in her email, "When I heard what had happened and about all those people who died, and they were all innocent bystanders, I thought, God doesn't give a rat's ass about us." In another email, Nicole, a thirteen year old from New Jersey writes, "I'm having a hard time with my faith right now, believing God is there for me and my family. A lot of people in my community had someone die at the World Trade Center." Josh, a fifteen year old from Texas also expresses feelings of betrayal. "God is supposed to use all things to the good of those who let His love into their hearts. Well, after last week's attacks, I don't allow myself to feel His love any more."
Other teens are finding themselves being tested because of their faith. Sunmit Singh, a high school junior, wrote an article for his school paper entitled, "I am a Sikh, not a terrorist." He says, "Yes, Sikhs wear turbans and have beards. But they have no connection, religiously, socially, culturally, even geographically with the men responsible for these heinous acts of violence." Since September 11, Sunmit has "not had a day go by when I was either helping at the Salvation Army, collection donations and doing other things to ensure the safety of the innocent people of my religion." Sunmit believes that "education is the only solution." He often uses a quote by Gurdarshan Singh, a religious teacher: "Together, let us rebuild America - a nation with understanding and respect for every individual, regardless of their race, religion, or ethnicity."
Most teens agree that what happened is a wake-up call, but are still sorting out what it means. As Monica put it, "I keep asking questions and seeking the answers." Etan has some questions of his own. "We had a debate in religious school over the issue of civil liberties. A lot of people thought it was okay to arrest people who looked suspicious or Middle Eastern, but I asked, what message does that send? Now I find myself wondering, what is the goal? To destroy America? To destroy Western Civilization?" Rahda expresses his frustration: "Until we understand that we are all brothers with the same father, God, we'll keep doing these terrible acts. We are victims of our own forgetfulness that we are all children of God."
Although they may not completely comprehend the ramifications of September 11th, many teenagers are clear about where they can go for comfort. Lindy, a high school sophomore and a Baptist, says she and her friends are constantly talking about how unnerving the past weeks have been. "It's like a piece of each of us has been torn away, and we're looking for ways to fill it." She hasn't missed a Sunday service since September 16th. "I'm confused and sometimes I'm afraid. Going to church makes me feel better, even if it's for just a little while." Her friend, Ann, who goes to the same church, agreed, "I say more prayers now."
Ann is not the only teen saying more prayers and searching faith-based writings and scriptures. Some find comfort in this quote from William Martin's The Parent's Tao Te Ching: "People facing hardship and sorrow must become like water. They must embrace the hardest things of life and enfold them with their heart. Death and loss are overcome with gentleness and serenity." Others like quotes from Everyday Blessings by Myla and Jon Kabat-Zin: "Perhaps the best we can do is feel the fleetingness of life and of our present moments, and live inside them, one at a time, as fully as possible, hugging those we love and rejoicing in our lives." More than one young person also mentioned Psalm 27, especially verses 11 - 13: "Teach me Your way, O Lord, And lead me in a level path. Because of my foes, do not deliver me over to the desire of my adversaries, for false witnesses have risen against me, and such as breathe out violence. I would have despaired unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord in this land of the living."
Ultimately, what I told my daughters was what teenagers from all over our country told me: that, since September 11th, we can find daily examples of "goodness of the Lord in this land of the living." We see acts of courage and compassion taking place all around us. And each time we replace an image of darkness with an image of light in our minds, we are better able to cope with what is happening around us. Scott, the Unitarian, is coping, saying that, a few days after the eleventh, "as word of good fortune slowly came to everyone I felt close to, I silently thanked the force of life for guiding so many to safety." And so is Lauren, "I am so thankful for what I've got... it makes me want to give back to my community." Monica, is also hopeful: "We young people are the future leaders of Mother Earth. We must look within ourselves for our divine potential and connect with that first."
Copyright 2001, Celia Straus