Yesterday was 9/11. I scrolled through Instagram for a while, seeing all the posts about “remembering 9/11.” I didn’t post anything.
I’ve written previously about how I don’t need to “remember” 9/11, because I never forget it. It lives within me, in the tiny daily reminders that exist around the city: the Freedom Tower. A helicopter flying overhead. A plane that appears to be too low. The wail of ambulances and fire engines. Any day with a clear blue sky. Especially at this time of year, when we get those days where there’s a slight chill in the air but it’s still warm in the sun, and you spend the day taking your sweater off and putting it back on. That was the kind of day it was on September 11, 2001.
We don’t need to remember that which we never forget.
The other way I never forget is by trying to live my life with the mindset from that day top of mind.
Events of this magnitude — the ones that cause us to thank God for the grace of not being in that particular place at that particular time — have the power to change us, if we let them. Whether it’s an external attack, or a brush with a serious illness or an escape from near death, the hope is that it will cause us to consider what really matters in life.
The 9/11 “rememberances” on social media tend to bother me because they mostly read like lip service: “remembering” in speech only, without any action. It often feels like,
Oh, yeah, this thing happened. What a tragedy. It was sad. But we won the war. Freedom prevailed! We showed them!
Everyone grieves and remembers in their own way, and I don’t mean to suggest otherwise. But how, exactly are we honoring the memory of those who inadvertently gave their lives that day?
How has this experience informed your life? How has it changed you?
Remembrance of the past serves little purpose unless we take from it into the future. What do you take from that day into the future?
In many ways, it’s fitting that 9/11 falls at this time of year, around the Jewish high holidays. This is the exact purpose of the Aseret Yemei Teshuva — the ten days of return — that mark the period between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.
In fitting with that theme, I want to share with you 3 ways I have used 9/11 to inform my life choices.
(1) Eulogy Virtues vs Resume Virtues
What would people say about you if your funeral was tomorrow? What would you want them to say? And what’s the difference between those?
David Brooks, in his book The Road to Character, talks about eulogy virtues vs resume virtues. Resume virtues are the achievements and accomplishments we strive to accumulate. Eulogy virtues speak to our character. It’s easy to get hung up on words — virtues like integrity, compassion, honesty, grace. But words hold the meaning we give them. Your definition of integrity might differ greatly from mine.
More important than choosing from a list of words is creating standards for how you will act in various circumstances. We are story tellers. When we speak about other people and what we admire most about them, we most vividly create a person by sharing stories, not character traits.
In 1990, my family lived in Israel for the summer with a few other families. One of my mom’s friends learned her father died. Her husband hadn’t yet arrived in Israel; she was alone with her three kids, in shock at the sudden loss and needing to get back home for the funeral. My dad went over to their apartment, packed up this woman and her kids, got them on flights back to the U.S., drove them to the airport, and got them on the plane. This family friend still tells that story.
The story reveals several “virtues.” But the story is what resonates.
What’s are the stories that people will tell about you? How do you show up?
(2) Last Impressions
I’ve written before about this.
We tend to get preoccupied with first impressions and surface appearances. Social media is all about cultivating an “image.” I’ve seen many people who fall victim to this. They adopt a voice that isn’t theirs, outsource their photography, curate an persona that isn’t true to them. Then they become paralyzed in trying to live up to that image.
First impressions are important, to be sure. And, whether we like it or not, the image we present to others can shape how people perceive us, and this is our “brand.”
It can take work to overcome a less-than-stellar first impression, but it can be done. Here’s what cannot change: the last impression you leave someone. How do you leave the conversation?
When my oldest nephew was born, I started telling him “I love you more than all the stars in the sky.” I told this to him every time I saw him, even before he knew how to talk. When he started to learn how to speak, I’d let him fill in the blanks.
How much do I love you? More than all the ….
in the …
I did the same with his brothers, and with my nieces, modifying sometimes for them. They all know this.
In January 2015, I fainted in the middle of the night and fell to the floor. I spent the night bleeding from my head, not knowing if I would make it. Among the many thoughts that passed through me was this:
My nieces and nephews know how much I love them.
Sure enough, a few weeks later, my sister told me that when she was putting the girls to bed, she told them she loved them, and one asked:
More than all the stars in the sky, like Aunt Renée?
Last impressions matter. What’s the last impression you make on someone? How do you end each day?
(3) Making Meaning
What’s truly important to you? What matters most? What work lights you up?
I spent my formative years on a path of endless achievement, only to learn consistently that the thrill of achievement doesn’t last long. Events like 9/11 reinforce to us that life is short and unpredictable. We waste so much energy and time chasing things that don’t matter in the long run.
They don’t bring us fulfillment, they don’t create meaning.
I was a second year law firm associate on 9/11. I already knew that the partner track wasn’t for me. On my path to reach that position, I had given up many potential opportunities to “stay the course.” What did I miss?
As I evolved in my career, from lawyer to real estate broker, to coach and consultant, I have celebrated many great achievements. But the thrill of those highs is short-lived. I’ve learned that in the big picture of life they don’t matter much as we think they do.
Over the years, I’ve made some moves that some people thought came out of left field. But each inflection point I had a simple mantra: no regrets.
Maybe the venture will fail, and if it does, at least I’ll know. It’s better than looking back and wondering “what if ….?”
With each iteration of myself, I endeavor to create and nurture life. To borrow a phrase from psychologist Eric Maisel, I try to “make meaning.”
Isn’t that what we’re after?
The Best Way to Remember
The best way to remember those who died on 9/11 is by not forgetting in the first place. We can honor those who inadvertently sacrificed their lives by not sacrificing ours.
We are still here, blessed with the gift of life. Let’s be here. Let’s make life count.
- This isn’t to say I always get it perfect — or even close; I adopt the statement of Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz, the rabbi of my synagogue, who told us that “I’m not preaching at you; I’m preaching with you.” Everything I write here is as much for me as it is for you. ↩