September 16, 2017

How it felt to Bear Witness days after the 9/11 Attack.

To say America has been through a lot in the past year would be a supreme understatement.

And we are now facing another anniversary of September 11th, a pivotal moment in our nation’s history.

In light of this marker, it’s important to pause and honor those who have lost their lives and to see what can be learned from the tragedy.

As I reflect on my own journey, some important lessons emerged. Back in 2001, my husband and I had planned to fly to Paris a few days after 9/11. We were looking forward to the trip, but it didn’t feel right to have such an indulgent vacation while our country was in mourning.

Instead, we got in our car and drove to New York City. We wanted to show love and support—to connect, to help how we could, and to just be with those most directly impacted by the tragedy. The impulse was to come together.

We didn’t plan this, but ended up basing our week around visiting fire stations in different neighborhoods. At the time, they had become shrines to those who had lost their lives trying to help others on 9/11.

There were photos of the men set up, often with write-ups about them and their families and a fund to help their children. They all seemed so young. We always donated and spent some time talking with the firemen who were on duty.

They seemed to want to talk, appreciative that their fallen brothers were not being forgotten. We were happy to listen, bear witness to their pain and loss, and thank them for their service.

Both of us had been to New York City many times, but this was like nothing either of us had experienced. And I am not talking about the smell, the debris flying through the air, or the gaping hole in the middle of the financial district as wide as the one in our hearts.

What was most striking in the city that week was how friendly and loving everyone was to each other. People went out of their way to be kind and helpful. There was a real sense of community that is just not felt in a big city on an average day.

People made eye contact and smiled at each other as if to say, “Hey, I’m alive right now and so are you and here we are together. Aren’t we lucky? Isn’t that something special?” And it was.

Despite the enormity of the recent tragedy and the “missing person” posters everywhere, it felt like people had woken up out of a stupor and remembered what was really important. This was not a dress rehearsal. It could all be gone within a day. The natural instinct was to be kind.

There were not that many tourists during this week and one night we had a restaurant all to ourselves. The cook and waiter came and sat with us for dinner. It did not seem inappropriate at all. We had all shed our masks and social constructs and became just four people together at dinner. Why shouldn’t we eat together? It felt natural.

They shared their stories about coming to the United States as immigrants and achieving the “American Dream” of owning a successful business and giving their children a better life. They were wondering what effects the recent attacks would have on all this.

We were of different race and ethnicity, but none of that mattered. We were humans, sharing this moment in time together. When all else is stripped away, all that mattered was our love and human connection.

After dinner, they invited us to play late-night soccer with them in a local park. They were trying to keep some normalcy in their lives and soccer was a part of that. My husband (who had never played soccer in his life) went off to kick the ball around with his new friends.

The symbolism of this pleased me immensely. I actually felt good and hopeful that this was a pivotal moment for us as a nation—that we would all take a collective pause and reassess our priorities.

This could be our new normal: where people naturally are kind and compassionate and recognize each other as kin.

There could be a silver lining in this otherwise senseless catastrophe, and it could be beautiful beyond anything we had known.

Unfortunately, as we know now, this didn’t happen. My heart sank as I heard us directed to go shopping; to go to Disney World; and get back to business as usual.

I was incredulous. Didn’t our leaders know that most of us were not thrilled with “business as usual,” and that we didn’t want to squander this opportunity? Didn’t they see the precious dynamic that had arisen from the ashes of tragedy? Couldn’t they feel all the hearts that had been cracked open and the possibilities that go along with that?

We didn’t need more stuff; we needed more connection.

The good news is that more people are waking up to what really matters and are giving voice to it, even when it is in direct conflict to what our government tells us is best.

Those of us that are on the mindful path have daily opportunities to see what is and is not working in our personal lives.

We get to decide how we want our culture to feel and how kind we are to each other. We get to decide how much stuff we need (spoiler alert: we have enough).

Let’s not let all those who lost their lives on 9/11 be in vain.

Let’s remember what happened then, learn from it, and approach the present trauma’s in our country with greater presence and love.

We are all brothers and sisters on the path together at this moment in time. We’ve been trying out war and control for ages and it has always just bred more war and hatred.

Let’s try love and kindness this time. It’s so radical, it just might work.

“Life is short and we have never too much time for gladdening the hearts of those who are traveling the dark journey with us. Oh be swift to love, make haste to be kind.” ~ Henri-Frédéric Amiel


Author: Erin Sharaf
Editor: Danielle Beutell
Copy Editor: Travis May
Social Editor: Callie Rushton

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Erin Sharaf

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Image: Wikimedia Commons