Today’s hashtag is #NeverForget – tributes to 9/11 flood our feeds. So many Americans have shared what they were doing that day, what their reactions were, how it affected them, how it affected the world around them.
All I can remember is the shock. Pure, unfiltered shock.
My mom was in town to help me choose my wedding dress for my May 2002 wedding. I was babysitting my step-son-to-be (he’s now 23 as much my son as anyone could be!). My husband-to-be was driving back from Utah with his family after attending his grandfather’s funeral, a Pearl Harbor vet. I had just started my first class in my master’s program for public policy. I was excited, full of promise and happily planning out my new life.
The husband-to-be called me from the road early that morning waking me up. “Turn on the TV,” he said, “a plane has hit the World Trade Center.” The words didn’t make sense until I reached for the remote and saw the enormity of what he was trying to tell me.
I screamed to get my mom’s attention, my kid still asleep in his room. She turned on the TV in the living room and gasped. We just couldn’t comprehend what we were seeing. And then, right then the 2nd plane hit. The shock, the magnitude of what we just witnessed was too much to describe. Hearing about the Pentagon and Pennsylvania only added to the confusion and dismay.
I personally didn’t know anyone who died that day, but I know two people that fate chose to save that day. My cousin, who is like a brother to me, worked in that building (and fortunately was at the coast celebrating his son’s 1st birthday). My mother-in-law was supposed to have been there that weekend but she was called out to Utah with the family instead.
And then the waves of grief finally started after I saw people throwing themselves from the building, escaping the fatal onslaught of fire, smoke, and falling debris, my heart broke with a permanence I still can’t fully describe. Empathy for the loneliness and desperation fueled by primal fear and a haunting inevitability. Witnessing someone’s last moments like that over and over – too many to count – so many I will never know the names of. When the kid asked why they were jumping, the tears couldn’t stop. I stood in the shower for 30 minutes just crying, letting the sound of the shower drown out my wailing sobs.
We kept the dress appointment that day because as mom said, we needed something to look forward to in the midst of sorrow. Trying on wedding dresses that day, knowing I made the right choice for the modest wedding of my dreams sounds like the most selfish, self-absorbed thing to do. But it was the only thing that could replenish the outpouring of empathy that was drowning my spirit.
Little did I realize that as an American, my heart would continue to break over and over again in the years since.
9/11 exposed some of America’s deepest vulnerabilities
As Americans, we felt vulnerable, exposed, and indeed, traumatized. We went through a collective mourning period – classes were suspended, we were allowed to be human beings with feelings, at least for a little bit. There was a precious moment of recognition in one another’s eyes about the unspoken horrors we had just witnessed. At the gas station, at the grocery store. For a few days we honored that flicker of recognition in one another.
But our consciousness can only handle so much darkness and trauma before it starts seeping deeper into our system, a quiet code of disquietude flipping switches on a dime, sometimes to protect us, sometimes to manipulate us. It happens in our everyday lives all the time. We swallow the words of the bully until they’re embedded in our system, stopping us from speaking our truth, maneuvering levers to spoil our successes long after the bully is gone. Victimization giving rise of paranoia, distrust, and a new system of “normal”. Our deep underbelly, both in corporate America and in our mundane, empty lives was disrupted by the coordinated and deliberate hatred of others.
It wasn’t long before things started shifting, before we started looking at one another with suspicion. Many were manipulated by lies about weapons of mass destruction. How many of our soldiers carry trauma from this fabricated war? But our vengeance must be served, is the programming we’ve been taught.
The pre-existing rift between left and right began to grow both between and within parties. We saw a growing rise of hate crimes and targeted discrimination against those of Muslim faith and Middle Eastern descent. We allowed compromises to both civil liberties and human dignity in the name of national security. Terrorism added a new violent layer of fatalistic aplomb to our public discourse.
And it has been growing exponentially ever since. We have been fed a steady diet of gradually paranoid narratives, the inspiration porn of populist one-upmanship, tolerance for the most extreme interpretations of the truth. Constantly exposed to provocative images of fear, nefarious gaslighting narratives we soaked up the stories that personalities that justified the weaponized surety of our own private victimizations.
9/11 felt personal
9/11 felt more personal than many things we’ve gone through as a nation. Yes, the rest of the world witnessed it, but we were the victim of a crime so heinous in reality and symbolic in identity that I think we are still uncovering layers of it. Unlike a natural disaster, we were targeted, we were unexpectedly knocked in the gut, costing thousands of innocent lives. Not on the battlefield. We were ambushed at work, on a commute. A normal ordinary day of no true significance other than the date these men collaborated to choose. This wasn’t a distant declaration on foreign soil, this was here, this now, this was personal.
We grew to see shadows in every corner of someone else’s life but failed to expose our own to the light of day. We resisted looking at the ways in which we center ourselves on narratives of pain and struggle but fail to empathize with the pain and struggle of others. We both want our pain recognized and we want it protected. We want someone to witness it, but to do so would be to expose it to the light of our own attention, exposing the uncomfortable depths to which it has embedded itself into our daily world.
The memory of that exposure of our vulnerable underbelly still hurts after all this time in some big and small ways. And in so many ways as a nation, we are still guarding this wound, lashing out at anything, anyone that might threaten us again. We want assurances of our safety and have been willing to even sacrifice one another to have it.
No matter how much we might have progressed and emotionally healed since then, there is a festering wound at the core of our political and cultural life. We all have expressed a deep distrust in the collective will of our nation to move forward together, hypervigilant ideological stubborn wars waged against one another with alarmingly high consequences. Each side battling for control over unwieldy systems that are crumbling under the weight of inequality, failing to deliver on the promises of this nation, the chosen promise on the declaration of inalienable rights.
We think we’re playing at tug-of-war, when in fact, the rubber band holding our planet together is about to snap from the pressure of containing such fiercely repulsive polarities of our illusions of separateness. All to protect ourselves from confronting the collective compassion fatigue we have steadily been experiencing since 9/11. It’s not that we don’t care…it’s that we’ve been through so much unacknowledged, unhealed pain that our capacity to care is overwhelmed by the state of “way too much” always.
Vulnerability invites connection
Just like we went through a shared trauma on 9/11, we are experiencing one at this moment today with COVID. The sorrow, the frustration, the anger, the misdirected pain burrows under the surface, inflaming the festering pain we’ve been feeling for nearly 20 years now. Just like members of the Silent Generation were impacted by the traumas of poverty and lack, this ongoing generational trauma will likewise be passed along to our children
I want more than anything for us to we recognize that these vulnerabilities are easier to bear when shared and recognized in our connections with others. We don’t have to understand what someone else has gone through in order to extend empathy and understanding. Instead of adding doubt and denial, we can choose to accept and recognize a shared reality – that we have been through some shit together.
It’s critical, now, more than ever, for us to find and create places for community and connection. Not to gossip and hate on others, but to share lived realities in the comfort of those who get you. More than ever we’re invited to share our truth, to open old wounds, and heal ourselves to save the generations to come.
As we carry forth the memories of this day to the next year, may we find the strength to stand up for one another.
May our lungs be full of the breath of inspiration to speak our truth.
May our minds be clear enough to recognize the truth in one another.
May we each find a pathway to create a better reality than the polarized forces we’re sponsoring today.
May those we choose as leaders prioritize the healing recognition we need and actively choose not to add more trauma to our already overloaded lives.
The rubber band of our uneasy tolerance holding the country together will snap unless we show up with our full integrity, our full honesty, and our full humanity and demand the same from our leaders.
If we can do these things, we will have honored those who died this day, we will have recognized the pain and tears of every mother, father, husband, daughter, or best friend who lost their beautiful love that day. We will have honored the brave rescuers who saved lives and sacrificed themselves in pure selflessness and duty to humanity.
And we will have moved a step closer to bringing us into the resolute safety of truth…the foundation for rebuilding ourselves and our country.
Each of us shares our life with someone.
In all actuality, we share our lives with many someones.
Our orbits pass through one another, sometimes crashing through the orbits of others everyday. With every action, with every word, with every choice, we send ripples of significance. We each influence someone, several someones, in our day-to-day lives and in the memories reverberating in those we may never see again. And even the most obtusely selfish among us can serve as an inspiration to someone else. One ripple sends another and another.
We are all connected. Maybe positively, maybe negatively – no matter how brief, no matter how intense, the connections we share are inescapable. What happens to one of us reverberates through the rest of us.
Even in the darkest of my depressions, it is this truth that keeps me going. This truth has been the basis of my life and my calling. It is the guidebook for my decision-making, the tome I refer to when I feel I’m off my path. I gravitate toward connectedness with others, even if it means breaking faith with what the world would have me do with its rules and expectations.
It is the universality of our connectedness that gives me hope for our future but likewise makes me fear for our present.
We live in unprecedented times. When I was 15, I cared deeply about politics, but it didn’t rule my every thought or conversation. I worried about getting my homework done, navigating increasingly more adult decisions. I didn’t have to worry about my life or the lives of those around me. We didn’t know the earth was dying.
My son is now 15 with a keen mind for politics and history. He doesn’t want kids because “why bother when the earth will be uninhabitable by the time they’re 10”.
It breaks my heart that my son, my bright light of hope in this world, cannot see any hope in our future. He watched with panic and anxiety when Trump announced, foreseeing a time that brown people would be locked up. Fearing for my Mexican family, that election was so difficult to endure for us both. It became real to us – we were being collectively targeted and threatened.
Combined with the regularity of lock-outs, the proliferation of cyber bullying and the rapidly empty responses to climate change, he has nothing left to believe in. He watched his country, the adults and parents who should be watching out for his generation, elect the most unsophisticatedly inhumane of any candidate possible to usher his generation into adulthood. Environmental protections are dismantled, a sledgehammer has been taken to a woman’s right to choose, and racism, sexism and discrimination is sanctioned and protected.
We have a generation of children who have been force fed a steady diet of fear and impulsive intolerance. Even for the kids not directly in harm’s way today, the multitude of dangers they have to navigate put my youthful grievances into clearer perspective. The trauma, the low, constant hum of human suffering accumulated slowly over time.
Who would they be if we hadn’t done this to them?
We all belong to each other.
This isn’t about my kid vs your kid. This isn’t about comparing our suffering. It’s about recognizing that we share the burden of carrying that experience with and for each other. Without your experience, how can I possibly ever understand mine? We serve as mirrors for each other, reflecting both the pain and the resilience, the fear and the healing. By sharing those experiences, we give context to someone else’s.
People often tell me that I share too much online. And I do. I know better than most the consequences of sharing so much. But I also know that dee in my soul, I share my ideas and experiences so that others might find something that resonates with them. If my story can help even one other person, then I experience a transformative effect for the pain I’ve lived through. I reclaim more of who I really am and I experience a greater freedom in living my most authentic life.
So many of us have been through some horrible things, things that we’re only now starting to find a voice for. Many of us are grappling with the outcomes and consequences of shame, guilt or trauma. That realization has a ripple effect around us, even momentarily altering how we see ourselves and the world around us. And if, in this moment we can collectively mourn for the people we never became, if we can reconcile the betrayal we feel, we might recognize that we have more in common than we think.
In these moments of crisis, in these days of uncertainty, we have a choice whether to silo ourselves away in a tower of enforced misery, or whether we might deserve the strength of sincere companionship. We have a choice to model for our over stressed and over burdened children how to handle emotions like fear or distrust, how to maintain resolve when it looks like all is lost. We can show them leadership. We can show them another way.
Connecting with one another, making ourselves vulnerable to share in the burdens, collaborating on solutions together may be the only way we can ensure that our children will survive their futures.
We all belong to each other.
We all want to be loved, to be found worthy of our intended’s affection, to be worthy of our parents’ pride, to be deserving of close friendships and to bask in the joy of romantic passion. Only by realizing and engaging with that connection will we be able to create a world of abundance, security and peace for us all.
It has been a little over a year since I started this job. A job that makes me feel like a for-realsies attorney without the icky task of being a cold, walled off shark. I get to help people, real people with real problems every single day. People who are disabled, homeless, alone in the world. And I choose to do this job in the most connected ways possible. The dial on my empathy is turned all way up all throughout the week. By the time I get to Friday, my soul is weary, my body is weak, and my heart is wistful.
Law school doesn’t teach you how to deal with clients, how to deal with compassion fatigue (if it even acknowledges that there is such a thing as compassion in the practice of law) or how to balance empathy with the cold, hard logic of The Law. One of my goals in life is to create a model for attorneys, who much like myself, went into law to help people, change the world and approach the practice of law with empathy and compassion. I’m learning as I go–and I’d love to share one of things that has helped me along the way.
As my family will affirm, I spend many a long night at the office. The work I do is so detailed and there is a tremendous burden on my shoulders each day. It only took a few months of this work for me to realize that I needed to build myself an escape hatch–not just because I needed it but also because no one else would do it for me.
So here are some things that have worked for me:
- Having a flexible schedule. 9-5/ M-F doesn’t work for everyone and it certainly never has for me. I purposely look for opportunities where I can be trusted as a professional to get the job done in the time that is most appropriate for me and my family. So I work 9-6 M-Th and 8-12 on Fridays. I can also change around my schedule as I need to based on appointments, family needs and such.
- I seize opportunities for self-care. I still need to get better at setting aside time and space for it, but when an opportunity for downtime presents itself I jump on it. Whether it’s lunch with a friend or time for meditation, I allow myself to seize that chance before it withers away.
- I find courage to say NO when I need to. I remember one of my first law jobs was as a clerk was for a large law firm. One of the associates in litigation gave birth and she was back to work in 2 weeks. She became my touchstone for what I might become if I couldn’t find a way to say no to impossible demands. I never, ever wanted to be her.
- I meditate. I’m only now returning to this practice, but it’s important for me to be able to let go at some point during the week and this is the easiest, most effective way.
- I designate some time that is just for me. I take Friday afternoons off for a reason. It is the one time during the week that is mine and only mine. Wanna see a movie? Friday afternoon. Wanna sit on the porch with a smoke and a whisky? Friday afternoon. Wanna spend quality time with my kid or a friend? Friday afternoon it is. My family and colleagues have learned that Friday afternoons are untouchable. Friday’s are MY days.
- I create rituals to get me through the week. One of them is to take an hour lunch, go to a diner and read. It’s something I started at my last corporate job and something that I know energizes me and allows me to turn off my critical, stressed out brain for a bit. I always have at least one fiction and one non-fiction book to choose from depending on my mood that day.
- I wash my hands after a difficult case or client encounter. It seems so simple. But it’s another ritual I engage in to wash away the bad energy that just came through my door. It gives me permission to let go of that fight or that obstacle and to start fresh again.
- I go to therapy. There’s no replacing the value of talking things out in a confidential environment with someone looking out for your best interests. I only go once a month right now, but it gives me a safe space to put all of my frustrations and doubts and gain some perspective.
These are just some of the ways I choose to handle being a heart-centric attorney in a world that denies the impact of trauma and human hardship on the people who work the front lines–and a world that fails to recognize that attorneys, despite our logic and reason, are still, you know, mostly human.