Updated reflections on The 9/11 Seawall and the The Empathetic Community

(The World Trade Towers and the QEII Photo:Neal Boenzi/The New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2011/09/08/us/sept-11-reckoning/towers.html#1
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[As we head toward the fifteenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, I am reposting (with some revisions) something I wrote several years ago that still reflects my thinking about the primacy of creating and sustaining a community that prioritizes empathy. Since posting this in January of 2012, I have seen many examples of people on a kind of figurative seawall facing challenges that threaten to become overwhelming. Additionally, I recognize that we have all stood on our own seawall at various points in our lives. When we are in immediate and pressing danger like those in need of rescue on 9/11, it is human nature to raise our hands and voices for help. It is more difficult to raise our hands when the challenges we face are less visible.  Living within an empathetic community makes it more possible for those who suffer in silence to gain the strength to raise their hands for help, and an empathetic community rises to the occasion when called. Beneath my reflection on the video entitled “Boatlift” are comments I made to an assembly on September 11, 2011 at The Westminster Schools on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.]

“Boatlift”, the story of the boatlift from the lower end of Manhattan on 9/11 is compelling viewing for many reasons. I found it especially fascinating because I had no prior knowledge of the fact that there was a significant boat evacuation on that day, and I certainly did not know it was the largest such evacuation in history. Even more significantly, however, I was drawn to the heroic actions of the people who moved so quickly to help others while placing their own safety in  jeopardy. Please watch it:

At about the 4:18 mark in the video, I was struck by the statement of  Kirk Slater: “It’s just human nature…you see people on the seawall in Manhattan begging you to pick them up, you have to pick them up.” I found myself thinking that while we are not running from collapsing buildings and faced with the potential prospect of having to jump into the water to avoid the smoke and dust of the Twin Towers, we have all spent some time on our own figurative seawalls (though our seawalls probably don’t lend themselves to dramatic soundtracks, and Tom Hanks is not likely to accept the job of narrating the documentary). On 9/11 the clarity of calling and purpose was clear to the men and women who stepped up to help the people stranded at the furthest edge of Lower Manhattan. It is far more difficult to assess and react to the seawalls upon which other members of our community may find themselves.  The routines of our lives allow us to forget others at times. We can find ourselves living as if the other people are merely actors in our play.

Successful communities discover ways to fend off this kind of empathy forgetfulness. Such communities create and maintain high expectations for our awareness of and respect for others. These places bring to day to day life many of the same skills that were manifest in the actions of every person who reached out helping hands on 9/11.

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September 11: I Could Not Stop Watching Because I Could Not Begin To Understand (A Reflection on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks):  

On September 11, 2001, I was teaching at a boarding school in the mountains of Western North Carolina, and I remember that I had a distinct sense that the events of that day would be etched in the memory of each of my AP Literature students for the rest of their lives. I wanted, more than any other moment in my career, to be a good teacher that day.
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During my classes while we listened to the fast moving news on a sorry old portable radio, we wrote and talked about what was most important to us, and we struggled to reconcile the startlingly beautiful and verdant view out of my fourth floor classroom windows with the reality of events in New York, in Pennsylvania, and in Washington DC.  In the days to come I watched the footage of the planes disappearing into the World Trade Center over and over and over again.  I could not stop watching because I could not begin to understand.
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Just days earlier in August of 2001, the nation had been focused on a debate about the relative merits of stem-cell research.  It was an intense debate—the president, the Congress and the news media had the topic running on the high rotation of the 24-hour news cycle and the high octane of charged rhetoric.  Many pundits were positing that this debate would in the end define the legacy and the relative success of George W. Bush’s Presidency.  The events of September 11, 2001 suddenly made the Stem Cell Debate seem like ancient history and the effort to define a president’s legacy seem trite.
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Nearly 3,000 Americans lost their lives that day—ordinary citizens, firefighters, police, and rescue workers. Those who died were on airplanes, in the World Trade Center, or in the Pentagon, and in a couple of hours the lives of their families and this nation were forever changed.  Since that day close to six thousand U. S. Service men and women have been killed in the conflicts that have grown out from the 9 11 attacks, and many times that number have returned home as casualties.
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So today, in anticipation of this sad anniversary, we honor the memory of the victims of that attack, and we honor those that serve the public good and put their lives in harm’s way in response to those in need.  We also honor all the members of the armed services and their families for the unfathomable commitment they have made to our country since that horrible day in 2001.  We cannot understand the extremes of such commitment and should not pretend to unless we have made it ourselves; instead we should simply say thank you and do all we can to support them, while recognizing that the price for preserving our nation rests unequally on the shoulders of our citizens.

One thought on “Updated reflections on The 9/11 Seawall and the The Empathetic Community

  1. georgelamplugh September 9, 2016 / 5:36 pm

    Thanks for these reflections, Ross–they serve as gentle reminders that the rest of us need to search our souls and try to see what we believe has come of those terrible events.

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