Haiti and Human Resilience

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The tragedy in Haiti has already shown us a great deal about the human spirit.

Nowhere in that country, here in America or elsewhere in civilized nations is there any event or image that speaks to complacency or helplessness. The reports and pictures coming out of Port-Au-Prince are all about courage and compassion and survival. Even traumas of immense proportion, including natural disasters and wars, do not paralyze the efforts of human beings to help one another resurrect that which has been lost. Compassion and hope are two of the most laudable and indomitable characteristics of our species. We want to see resilience where there is devastation.

And so we look for it amidst the rubble. And, of course, we find it. Survivors are pulled from collapsed buildings. Single doctors treat thousands in makeshift, open-air clinics. Orphans sing praises to the Lord while waiting patiently to be rescued. The resilience of human beings, however, should not lead us to underestimate the ultimate psychological toll of the earthquake on the strong and good people of Haiti. Just as many strong men and women go to war and return struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression and other challenges to their mental well-being, so it will be for millions of Haitians and their descendants.

A tragedy of the proportion of this 7.0 earthquake rumbles through more than one generation, as the loss of fathers and mothers and sons and daughters sparks disorders of mood and anxiety months, years, even decades, later. Human beings are resilient, but they are also sensitive. The compassion that fuels needed efforts in a crisis is actually linked in a very real way to our vulnerability. We care and, therefore, respond. We care and, therefore, suffer.

If the soul were an automobile, it would be a Ferrari, capable of extraordinary performance, but fragile. Trauma-our own and that of others-can motivate us to do God's work, even as it shakes us with questions about the unpredictable nature of life and death, the lack of control we all have over when we will hurt and whether we can heal. Any plan for the rebuilding of Haiti will harness the incredible human capacity to rebound after tragedy. But any practical plan to rebuild the people of Haiti must take into account the fact that psychiatric disorders will likely be soaring in that nation for the next five or ten decades.

We humans are wired for empathy and intellect. That comes at a price.

Dr. Keith Ablow is a psychiatry correspondent for FOX News Channel and a New York Times bestselling author. His book, "Living the Truth: Transform Your Life through the Power of Insight and Honesty" has launched a new self-help movement including www.livingthetruth.com. Dr. Ablow can be emailed at info@keithablow.com.