A Lesson after 9/11: Compassion

11 09 2011

At the software company I worked for, we watched in horror after the first tower was struck. With my co-workers, we watched as a plane drove into the second tower. We were in shock as was the entire nation. We were glued to the television…waiting for information. We saw people jump from the towers to their deaths and knew that many more had died as the towers crumbled to the ground. We saw the look of sheer terror on the faces of those present and running from the towers. It was an apocalyptic event being broadcast live as we watched.

To make it even more surreal, my manager at the time kept crossing through the lobby and glaring at me as if to say “Why are you wasting your time watching television?” My peers were all there watching. Something monumental was happening. We needed time to witness and attempt to cope with what we were seeing. Feeling the pressure from this demanding boss, I was one of the first to pull away and go back to my desk and it was incredibly difficult to focus and do technical marketing work. It was corporate America saying “You’re not human. Don’t feel. Just do your work…no matter what else is going on.” It was the birthday of one of my co-workers, but definitely not a day to celebrate.

Credit: TellingNicholas.com

Today, 10 years later, I am still disturbed by that glare. It’s one of the reasons I choose to work for myself. Yes, there are business demands and the software business is incredibly demanding. But people are not robots. Bad things happen and we have feelings. We need time and space to witness, to grieve, and to recover.

I just watched another one of HBO’s incredible documentaries. This one is called “Telling Nicholas” and first aired on May 19, 2002. Created by director/producer/writer James Ronald Whitney, it also won an Emmy.

It tells the story of how the mother of 7-year-old Nicholas died in the World Trade Centers on 9/11 and how the family struggled to accept that she is not coming back and is indeed dead. They also struggled with how to tell Nicholas. It his heart wrenching and I cried throughout most of the movie. The family is very sensitive to and protective of this little boy’s feelings.

I’m not a 7-year-old boy and I didn’t lose my mommy or anyone on 9/11. Still, we all grieve that day and the loss of innocence, security, and safety we had up until then. We grieve the loss of so many people who were doing nothing but living their lives and working and being mommies and daddies and brothers and sisters and children.

If 9/11 has had any positive impact, hopefully it has taught us to appreciate the freedom we have, to value life, to be grateful for the love of others, and to never take even one day of our lives for granted. And to stop the glares. We all need time to process when things happen…even if we’re at work…and we all need to practice and feel compassion.



One response

12 09 2011

It shouldn’t be a surprise to me that two of the blogs I subscribe to have mentioned 9/11 the day after the 10th anniversary but it is something of a coincidence that they both refer to the way that the authors were expected to behave as the enormity of the event became clear. I hope that Alaina (http://wp.me/pz7Me-eS) and Barbara will excuse my offering the same comment on both their blogs.

You cannot grow up in central London, as I did, without hearing the term “Blitz spirit”, referring to the resilience displayed by the British during World War 2. The Mayor of New York mentioned it in the days after 9/11. It would be a mistake to believe that those in the UK who were under attack in 1940 were not shaken to the core by what was happening to them. Last year I did some research into the impact of the Blitz on the suburb where I now live and came across a street around a mile from my present home that was hit during a Luftwaffe raid. The pilots had in fact missed their target, the local air base. Today there is nothing to indicate that a number of the houses were destroyed. There is no memorial to a little boy called Keith who died after the gunner in one plane chose to strafe the street. His father promised his mother that they would move from the area but in the end the house was rebuilt and she lived there until her death in the 1980’s. I cannot imagine what it must have been like for this woman to walk past the spot where her son died as he played outside. I doubt if the term “Blitz spirit” meant much to her.

I mention this because I feel that individual stories like yours are sometimes lost on these hugely significant occasions. As a consequence those who look back at them may have a distorted notion of how people really behaved, forgetting that there was sometimes a political advantage to fostering the idea that they were all dealing with it admirably. Once those archive records are released decades later you often find that the authorities were desperately concerned about morale.

I suppose the issue is how do you grieve without undermining your capacity to fight back? At what point do those in charge draw the line and ask that those they are responsible for move on? We are all different, formed by a variety of experiences, and perceive others through individual filters. I hope that in the last ten years there has been at least some improvement on the way Alaina and Barbara were treated and that compassion is never mistaken for weakness.

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