Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Lessons I Learned From 9-11

ChipperMuse Extra: I wrote this piece last year for an exercise in my writers group. I haven't polished it too much, because I think that defeats the purpose of a piece like this. The events of September 11 still make me consider my place in the universe. The thoughts I share below are just some of my personal observations. And to answer the question everyone wants to know, I was at work in Stamford, CT, when I heard the news. I spent the day listening for traffic that wasn't there, flinching every time a military helicopter flew overhead, and hoping that the people who worked at our city branch had been nowhere near the World Trade Center.

No one ever expects disaster. Not even the most hardened pessimist. The negative thinker may expect trouble. He may expect fear. But he doesn’t expect terror. Whenever we say we’re expecting the worst, we merely mean we’re expecting bad news. Because no matter what we may say or think, no one ever expects true disaster. It’s not in our DNA to do so. And that means when disaster and terror strike, you just can’t be prepared for it. That is Lesson #1.

That is what 9-11 felt like to me. When the Twin Towers were struck, I was struck too.

I can’t convey how unreal things felt to me. My first awareness of what happened came within minutes of the first tower being hit. My coworker M— got a call from an aunt of hers. M— was anxious by nature, so it wasn’t unusual to see her become agitated. But when she got off the phone, she turned to the three of us who were watching her and said, “The World Trade Center was hit by an airplane! I’ve got to go see the news.” And then she dashed out of the room to run upstairs where our employers had satellite television set up.

My two remaining coworkers and I stared at each other. We couldn’t wrap our minds around what M— had said, because it just didn’t compute. We turned on our radio, though, to get the news. It was so soon after the first plane crash that no one realized what was going on. The second tower had not yet been hit, and I could still imagine it all as a tragic error, rather than a planned act of terrible violence.

The radio reports were confused, so I tried to get the news online. But this was impossible because the news sites were overloaded from the excessive web traffic. So I eventually went upstairs to the TV. I needed to know what was happening. And that is Lesson #2: You can’t make decisions and take action unless you have knowledge and understanding. Ignorance is not bliss. It is a slave’s chain.

You must understand the reality of your situation before you can be free. You need the whole truth, not just partial truth. I was trapped in the realm of incomplete understanding after the first tower was struck. I assumed the “worst” as I could imagine it then—an awful accident, but an accident nonetheless. I was only enlightened after the second plane crash, because at that point, it became clear that the whole thing had been planned.

Only in knowing that we were under attack could I think about what I needed to do in the face of such evil. And that is Lesson #3: Evil is a real thing. It exists in the heart of each person. It can bloom in the most horrific ways. And it requires a response. I don’t believe in doing nothing. I don’t believe in telling people, “To each his own.” There are many grey areas in life, but not everything is grey. Some things are black and white, good or evil, and we each have to choose where we will stand.

And that is Lesson #4: We all have to choose. And the choice you make has consequences. What you choose matters. If there were a label I could give to the age we live in, I’d call it the Age of Irresponsibility. So many people live their lives as though their choices don’t matter. Even those of us who care about our choices and how we affect other people… Yes, even I am easily tempted to choose what I want and place the blame elsewhere. But ultimately, I am the reason for everything I get in life. And I am responsible for how I treat others.

I may not choose how others act. I can’t control what others believe. But I can always, always, always choose what I believe. I can always choose what manner of response I will make to every moment of life. So can you. Don’t let yourself be lulled to sleep in the Age of Irresponsibility. We are all accountable for our decisions. So let’s have the guts to make every choice with conscious awareness of what it will cost you and others.

Why do I say this? That’s Lesson #5: You can’t take anything for granted. What starts out as a normal day at the office can end in death, or injury, or grief. Nothing is guaranteed for you in life. The only thing you ever truly own is yourself—who you are deep inside your heart. Friends, family, possessions, positions… All of those things can be lost.

But the true you is eternal. The real you is affecting people every day with the choices you make. Let’s not wait until later in life to think about these things. Let’s think about them today. Let’s choose wisely today, and live well. We may not have tomorrow.

Copyright (c) 2010 by Michele Chiappetta. All rights reserved.