With the 10-Year Memorial circus of September 11th now behind us, I’ve been wondering what exactly people were thinking during all those dramatic moments of silence. More this year than ever before, we have been saturated with articles, events, memorials and protests. While each of us struggles to find meaning from that day a decade ago, it’s far too easy to just say ‘enough already’ and turn back to our day jobs and sitcoms until next year. Memories and grief, theories and conspiracies abound. To make everything more complicated, a day that was once an actual tragedy is now constantly hijacked to serve the purpose of whatever politician or commentator has grabbed the microphone to attempt to win favor from our confusion. Perhaps though, as an alternative to the extremes of fighting, fear-mongering or simply trying to forget, we have the opportunity to really move forward from our ‘Day of Remembrance’ – to carry that remembrance back into our everyday lives without the heaviness of mourning or political rhetoric. Perhaps it’s finally time to follow our moments of silence with action and dialogue – action that sets a positive example and dialogue that values speaking and listening. It’s time to act, because any shrink worth their salt will tell you that healing does not happen while we stand in silence.
The word itself – remembrance – has enjoyed a substantial amount of celebrity over the last few years as the politically correct buzz word for 9/11. It’s the inevitable result of our promise to “Never Forget.” In a time when there’s little we can agree on, everyone agrees that we should remember. As a civilian 1st Responder, forgetting’s not really an option. But aside from reading names and ringing bells, I’m afraid that the idea of remembrance has become a band aid of silence over the wounded dialogue we’ve been trying to have for a decade. After all, we can’t argue if we’re not talking. There are many who prefer the idea of quiet remembrance because dialogues surrounding 9/11 are so often scarred with racism and anger – fueled by grief and frustration. So what is this remembrance really? Is it closing our eyes and picturing the planes crashing into each tower? Is it attempting, in our silence, to picture the unimaginable horror? The scope of lives lost? The bottomless grief of those left behind so suddenly? Perhaps even some reflection on the extraordinary acts of kindness and heroism that took place that day? All of those things are a good place to start. But it really is only the beginning. Our dialogue needs to be more than the sum total of our memories and stories – more than the collective acknowledgement of our grief. Remembrance is important, and it’s much more than just postponing our anger – it’s actually an alternative to it.
In the four months I spent working in and around Ground Zero, I learned some extraordinary things. But if there is only one postcard I could send you from ‘the pile’, let it be this. In all of that devastation, around the layers of death and debris, there were moments of joy. There was laughter. There was hope. And none of those things – not then and not now – were disrespectful to the dead. When there is death and fear and loss everywhere around you, a smile is a miracle – and we needed miracles. At any given moment, each of us struggled to hold ourselves together so that we could continue to work. We created – both from our actions and from sheer force of will – an undeniable and unbreakable positive energy. Through our own collective action – several thousand acts of kindness, selflessness and courage – we built something to oppose that devastation. And what we built – what we were able to do – was beautiful. There was a God on that pile that transcended any one religion. It was a kind of divinity that was created by those who witnessed it – defined by the work itself. It was powerful stuff. We sometimes get stuck in thinking that the positive and negative are mutually exclusive. That we must only be sad. That laughing on September 11th is disrespectful to those we lost. But, in fact, the opposite is true. Because in the end, we honor our dead not with sadness, but with the things that make us strong. It was the love, joy and laughter on the pile that saved us. Death is honored by fully living. If you want to see good in the world, do something good.
I submit to you that remembrance is more than just passive meditation. It is memory coupled with the action that those memories inspire. And my memories – as visceral and haunting as they may sometimes be – inspire me to work actively to create more good. I cannot imagine that when presented with a choice, anyone would choose a lesson of hate, destruction and vengeance over one of courage, love, and positive action, but sometimes that appears to be what we have done. Demonizing an unfamiliar religion will not prevent more death. It will not explain the evil of this world but rather will complicate and contribute to it. There is no excuse for such bigotry…not even grief. I respect grief in others. I know we each must find our own path to healing. But I do not respect the hatred that comes from that grief. So perhaps my lesson is simple, but I assure you it is not naive. I know the smell of death and the scope of sacrifice. I’ve heard countless other rescue and relief workers say the same thing. If you want to honor the memory of 9/11, go home and hug your kids. Call your mom. Celebrate your life by being of service to the world. Laugh – because laughing in the face of despair is courageous.
Do you remember September 12th and the days that followed? When we were all nice to each other? Remembrance is not fuel for vengeance, it is an active tribute to our resilience and love.