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.





A Holocaust Survivor and a Kenyan Boy

20 07 2010

Director Jennifer Arnold, Chris Mburu, Hilde Back, Jane Wanjiru Muigai during the Sundance Film Festival - Credit: Matt Carr, Getty Images

For Chris Mburu, a young, rural Kenyan student, the opportunity to make something out of his life would’ve ended if not for a small act of kindness.

Hilde Back was a young girl and a Jew who was helped by a stranger to escape from Nazi Germany to Sweden. She never saw her parents (who did not survive the Holocaust) again after leaving. She never forgot the kindness of that stranger and of the people who helped her once she got to Sweden. Hilde eventually became a school teacher on a modest salary, but sponsored…for about $15 a month…a young Kenyan student.

Because she paid his fees to go to secondary school, which his parents could not afford, that student…Chris Mburu…went on to eventually graduate from Harvard Law School and become a human rights lawyer for the United Nations. Inspired by Hilde’s generosity, in 2001 he decided to start a scholarship program to help other bright Kenyan students who can’t afford school fees and to name the scholarship program after her. With help, he tracked Hilde Back down and the two are now fast friends. She never knew that her small gift each month made such a difference in the life of one boy…and is now making a difference in the lives of countless other children.

Kimani, Ruth, and Caroline - Credit: http://asmallact.blogspot.com/

HBO is now airing an incredibly moving and important documentary film entitled A Small Act about this story and “the ripple effect one small act can have.” The world premiere of the movie was in January 2010 at the Sundance Film Festival. Jennifer Arnold wrote, directed, and produced this film.

It features three students…Kimani, Ruth, and Caroline…who are the top students in their school and who all have no hope of progressing in school due to the lack of ability to pay the $40 per month fees unless they get one of the coveted Hilde Back Education Fund scholarships.

I mostly subscribe to  HBO because of their documentaries. They are thoughtful, well done, and carry powerful messages. The message is easy to see in this one. So many of us think we don’t have the ability to make a difference in the life of another person so why bother? We may think we are barely scraping by ourselves and what little we could give just isn’t enough. This story shows that a small donation made monthly totally changed the life of Chris, who has gone on to change the lives of Kimani, Ruth, Caroline and so many more and they have all pledged to change the lives of students who come after them.

A few other ripple effects and how you can learn more:

Watch the trailer for the movie, and if you have HBO or if the film is being screened near you, watch the entire film. It will move you…hopefully to make your own small act.





Mommy Died in the War

9 04 2009

Since 9/11, over 8,000 U.S. children have lost a parent in the military, according to the Department of Defense. These are the young casualties of war that we don’t talk about or even think about very often. Today I watched a 2007 movie “Grace is Gone” on HBO and I thought about it and cried…a lot.

grace-is-gone-movieIn the movie, John Cusack plays the stoic and sad father of 8- and 12-year-old girls whose mother Grace is a sargent in Iraq. He is notified that Grace died in combat and is at a loss for how to tell his daughters. He impetuously decides to take them on a bonding adventure, a testament to the love and sacrifice of parents that we try to ease the pain of our children in any way we can.

The movie was scored with beautiful music by Clint Eastwood, who was nominated for two Golden Globes for the score and one song. I could really feel the emotions of the father as he agonized over the loss of his wife and his daughters’ loss of their mother.

Over 8000 children have felt that loss due to our being in Iraq and Afghanistan. They already were made to sacrifice while the parent was away from home, but with a sudden death, they aren’t even given the opportunity to say goodbye to their parent. That parent will never come to their future soccer games and ballet recitals and graduations and weddings and baby christenings. That parent will never again hug them or tuck them in at night or comfort them when they’re scared or tell them they’re proud of how well they’re doing in school. All that is gone.

The child(ren) and the remaining parent are left to carry on…to grieve, to find some new normal in life, to wonder why this happened to them, and to ache for the loss of someone who can never be replaced.

It is important to remember that sacrifice comes even from small children in these wars we are fighting. And children suffer not only here in the U.S., but also in Iraq, where it is estimated that more than five million children (at the end of 2007; source: Iraq’s anti-corruption board) are orphans, mostly due to the war.

Take the time to watch Grace is Gone on HBO or rent the DVD. It is moving. It will touch you. If you want to help out families who have lost a loved one in the war, consider donating to one of these organizations.

  • Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund – provides unrestricted grants to families of fallen troops
  • Fallen Patriot Fund – provides financial grants to the families of those killed or seriously injured in Iraq
  • Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) – provides services to all who have lost a loved one while serving in the U.S. armed forces
  • Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society – provides financial assistance and emergency grants to families and survivors.




  • Taking Chance Home with Dignity – Lt. Col. Strobl’s Personal Experience of the Cost of War

    21 02 2009

    The stirring HBO movie “Taking Chance” brought tears to my eyes. It shows the reverence, dignity, honor, and respect with which soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan are brought home.

    Starring Kevin Bacon and premiering today on HBO, it was shown at

    Michael Strobl - Credit: PBS.org

    Michael Strobl - Credit: PBS.org

    Sundance Film Festival and competed for the Grand Jury Prize. Kevin plays Lieutenant Colonel Michael Strobl, who volunteers – out of some seeming guilt at not being in Iraq himself – to escort the body of 19-year-old Private First Class Chance Phelps home.

    PFC Chance Phelps

    PFC Chance Phelps

    Chance was killed in Iraq on April 9, 2004. Strobl and those who assisted at each point along the way with transporting the body of PFC Phelps were deeply impacted and respectful and the cost of war was felt by all.

    Lt. Col. Strobl is a Desert Storm veteran and served in the Marine Corps from 1983-2007. He daily read the list of Marines killed in Iraq and came across the name of PFC Phelps, who was from his home town in Colorado. That made his decision to serve as an escort for Phelps’ body personal and something he felt he had to do.

    He kept a journal on his experience of escorting PFC Phelps home and from this came an article for the Marine Corps Gazette, which was published in July, 2004. I cannot access that article, but found a shorter version of it, which was published online at OrthodoxyToday.org in May, 2004. The article was widely circulated on the Internet and touched many people. It was given to Executive Producer Brad Krevoy when he attended the funeral of a friend’s son, who was killed in Iraq. He contacted Chance’s family and they agreed to allow the story to made into a film. Stobl went on to co-write the screenplay for the movie.

    From the HBO site for this film:

    ‘Taking Chance’ chronicles one of the silent, virtually unseen journeys that takes place every day across the country, bearing witness to the fallen and all those who, literally and figuratively, carry them home. A uniquely non-political film about the war in Iraq, the film pays tribute to all of the men and women who have given their lives in military service as well as their families.

    The life and death of Chance Phelps have touched a lot of people. The Chance Phelps Organization sponsors Run4Chance races and gives the proceeds to the Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund, which helps them to “…continue [their] vital mission of service to our wounded and critically ill Marines, Sailors and their families.”

    Here is a short HBO clip on taking the story from script to screen. Kevin Bacon, Lt. Col Strobl, and others are interviewed about the story and the movie. HBO will be showing this many times . I hope that you will check out the schedule and make a point to watch it. It is incredibly moving.

    Coffins of Soldiers Killed in Iraq

    Coffins of Soldiers Killed in Iraq being Taken off Plane at Dover Air Force Base - Credit: AFP, Getty Images

    UPDATE: On 2/26/09 Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said that photos can now be taken of flag-draped coffins of soldiers if the family of the deceased soldier agrees.

    UPDATE 4/5/09: For the first time in 18 years, the media today witnessed the return of a soldier killed overseas. You can read about it here.

    UPDATE 7/16/09: Today it was announced that this movie is nominated for an Emmy Award for best made for television movie and Kevin Bacon is also nominated for an Emmy Award as best actor in a made for television movie.

    UPDATE 1/17/10: Today Kevin Bacon won a Golden Globe for his role in this movie. The movie was also nominated for a Golden Globe award.