I’ve resisted coming to the 9/11 Memorial. I don’t need to see the footprints of the towers to remember. I don’t need to be reminded. I haven’t forgotten.
9/11 Lives in Me
I was uptown that day, at my law firm office at 59th and 5th. Far enough that I didn’t have to run for my life, but still trapped in the energy of the attack that changed our world. The feeling of that day never escapes me.
I feel it when a helicopter flies too low and my heart skips a beat.
I feel it in the breeze on a crisp day with a clear blue sky.
I feel it when the wail of ambulances and fire engines pierce my silence.
I think about it on the subway and when I look up and see the Freedom Tower from wherever I am in the city.
I could not forget if I tried. It lives within me. That’s one way to never forget.
But there’s another way to never forget. And that’s to never really acknowledge it in the first place. You can’t forget what you never knew, what you never felt.
After 9/11 we did what we do best as New Yorkers and as Americans.
We carried on. We rebuilt. New buildings. A memorial.
Back to life as usual.
Terrorists can’t win if we defy their attempts to stop our life as usual.
We’ll show them.
In the immediate aftermath, we came together as Americans know how to do. We cared for each other. We were all the same color and the same race.
The Importance of Grief
But did we grieve? Did we create space to mourn what we lost? Did we stop to feel the pain of what was taken from us?
Our innocence. Our sense of security — however false it was.
No. Because this is not the American way.
The American way is to soldier on without pause. It is to suppress the pain with the pretense of productivity.
We get busy.
Bury and build.
It’s a dangerous strategy.
The thing that we are unwilling to see and feel becomes the thing that controls us.
Seeds Planted Grow Sprouts
What we bury continues to grow beneath the surface. Like a seed, it eventually sprouts up through the soil. By the time it pierces the ground, it has grown roots, too.
Pain turns into fear.
Fear turns into anger.
Anger turns into hate.
Fast forward to 2018.
The World We Created
We live in a world of hate and fear. We are killing ourselves and each other in greater numbers than terrorists kill us.
Kids bring rifles to school and shoot their classmates.
It’s suddenly the norm for white people to call the police when they see people of color doing normal, every day things. Waiting for a friend at Starbucks. Falling asleep in a dorm common room while writing a paper. Taking a college campus tour.
We have a rampant opiate epidemic.
Suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students. (The leading cause of death is unintentional injury.) No longer able to suppress their pain, they choose to suppress themselves. Forever.
By the way, it’s worth noting that today’s college students were babies or toddlers or just being born around 9/11.
Coincidence? Maybe. But unlikely.
Energy is contagious. These kids absorbed an intense energy in the aftermath of 9/11.
Today, our country is more divided than ever. More stressed.
Even more pervasive than the opiate epidemic is the epidemic of culturally-sanctioned escape. Workaholism. Internet addiction. Technology. Social media. Busy.
Worst of all is the addiction to outrage. To anger. Winning at all costs. The news of the day.
Bury and build. Move forward. Carry on.
We’ll show them.
The American way is to soldier on without pause. It is to suppress the pain with the pretense of productivity. We get busy. Bury and build. Carry on. It’s a dangerous strategy.
The Angel at the 343 Wall
Tourists pass by the bronze wall sculpture in memory of the 343 firefighters who died that day. It says,
Dedicated to those who fell and those who carry on. May we never forget.
This was created before we lived in a hashtag culture. So it says “never forget” not “#neverforget”
Some stop. They take cheerful selfies next to the section that says
May we never forget.
How can they forget what they never knew?
Harry sits on a railing, telling the history of what happened to anyone who bothers to remove their airpods from their ears and listen. He sees teachers misinforming their students on class trips. He offers the facts.
I had been listening to him for the past 90 minutes, from a seat on the stairs in the public plaza across the street, as I listened to my emotions and took in the scene:
Tourists with selfie-sticks, posing at the fountains, seemingly oblivious to the fact that they were standing on a mass grave.
As I walked back that way, I lingered to take in the crowd gathered at the wall.
We started talking. He looked at me and said, you’re a New Yorker.
It wasn’t a question. He knew.
We had a wonderful chat about history. About knowing. The prerequisite to never forget.
They call him Harry the History Guy. But he is more. He is an angel. He lives to be in service to this memorial. He wants to make sure that people learn so that they can remember. You can’t forget what you never knew.
A short while later, in a moment of low traffic, I saw him take a rag to the bronze relief and wipe it down. As people approached, he told them to look for the women in the sculpture. He encouraged them to touch it. He wants them to know the facts. To feel the history.
Harry and I discussed how the city came together back then, and how today our country is more divided than ever.
But perhaps not all hope is lost.
Love is the Default State
No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite. — Nelson Mandela
Just one block south of the FDNY 343 Memorial Wall, artist Chinon Maria’s mural, One World, Our Children brings proof to Mandela’s words.
The happy mural weaves in the wishes of children from around the world. Statements wishing for peace and love, an end to violence, no more global warming.
It is a reminder that children come into this world with hearts for peace and love. We don’t need to teach them this; we just need to make sure they aren’t learning hate from anyone else.
As I took it in, I was filled with hope for our future. I wondered what this world might be like if we put some of those children in charge. Now, before they learn to hate.
As I walked back to the apartment building for my next appointment, I had come full-circle on my emotional roller coaster. With people like Harry the History Guy and the children represented in the mural, perhaps we stand a chance against the terrorists.
Even in our divided country, there are pockets of love and respect. There is tolerance. Acceptance. Generosity.
Maybe we will show them, after all.