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.

Won’t You Be, Please Won’t You Be The Helper: A Cum Laude Induction Talk

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Good Evening!

It is a pleasure to welcome parents, family, and friends to the Cum Laude Induction Ceremony.  And most importantly, it is a pleasure to welcome our honorees, accomplished members of our senior class—congratulations to each of you! The praise we offer you this evening is well-deserved. The challenges you have faced that led you here are real. And yet, this evening, at least this part of it, is really more about what you will do than it is what you have already done.

Fred Rogers once said: “We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It’s easy to say “It’s not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem.” Then there are those who see the need and respond. I consider those people my heroes.”

Fred Rogers who created and starred in Mister Roger’s Neighborhood, a children’s program that ran for decades on public television, was a significant presence in my early childhood. Even ahead of Sesame Street, which was brand new when I was headed into preschool, Mister Roger’s Neighborhood was my favorite show. I would sit cross-legged in front of the television and be absolutely ready to join him as he invited neighbors into his home, as he invited us to get on the make believe trolley, and as we arrived in the “Neighborhood of Make-Believe.”

Rogers was an impressive thinker, and he had much more to say than his children’s television program could contain. Humane, kind, and strong-willed, he had some powerful things to share not just with small children, but with all of us. While some it might sound quaint to our ears, it is often also relevant and challenging.

For instance, he provocatively challenged the power of culture when he said, “Life is deep and simple, and what our society gives us is shallow and complicated.”

He encouraged us to see the many facets of others, stating: “What’s been important in my understanding of myself and others is the fact that each one of us is so much more than any one thing. A sick child is much more than his or her sickness. A person with a disability is much, much more than a handicap. A pediatrician is more than a medical doctor. You’re MUCH more than your job description or your age or your income or your output.”

He even had something to say about keeping events such as Cum Laude Induction ceremonies in proper perspective, asserting: “It’s not the honors and the prizes and the fancy outsides of life which ultimately nourish our souls. It’s the knowing that we can be trusted, that we never have to fear the truth, that the bedrock of our very being is good stuff.”

This evening, however, I would like to focus for a few minutes on something Fred Rogers said that tends to recirculate after national tragedies. Here goes—

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of “disaster,” I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”

In the wake 9/11, only a couple of years before his death, Fred Rogers appeared as a familiar and comforting voice to the very parents who had once been young devotees of his television program. This generation of adults was now struggling to explain the unexplainable tragedy of 9/11 to their children. Given the chance to speak to us once again, he told us to look for the good, to spend less time trying to make sense of what happened and more time seeking the good in others. In the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks, it was not hard to find the helpers he described. First responders by job title or by inclination were ready at every turn to help others even if it meant putting their own safety at risk.

The helpers showed up after the Boston Marathon bombing as well. Even as most were understandably running away there were plenty of people running to provide aid and comfort to the injured.

It is not just after tragedies, however, that helpers are relevant difference makers. These helpers have likely looked out for you, our inductees, at virtually every turn in your life—your neighbors, teachers, coaches, friends, religious leaders and…not to be missed this evening in particular…your parents have played this role for you in ways both visible and invisible to you. Helpers don’t often get a movie’s heroic soundtrack to announce their good work, and they come in a fascinating array of shapes and sizes, an infinite variety of backgrounds and professions. It is my belief that they outnumber, and will always outnumber, the forces that corrode, abandon and destroy.

I have been thinking a lot recently about people who have found their way to professional lives that incorporate the helper role. This should be a particularly apt moment for such ruminations as you have a universe of potential paths ahead of you, and you will have some choices to make not only about what you will do, but who you will become. There are innumerable examples we could discuss here—I will spare you a catalogue and focus on just one.

John Woolard and I were classmates at St. Christopher’s School in Richmond, Virginia. Yesterday morning there was an article about John in the Richmond Times Dispatch. Here is an excerpt from that article, headlined “Passion for the planet led to big gig at Google for Richmond native”:

“During graduate school, Woolard’s interests had grown to include climate change and energy conservation.

“I was really focused on how you could take the power of the free market and use it to drive environmental change,” Woolard said.

Silicon Energy, which Woolard co-founded, produced software that helped utilities and other businesses save energy.

“It was one of these companies that really changed the industry. … Just through zeros and ones, or computer software, we were able to do the equivalent of avoiding the construction of two large coal or nuclear power plants,” Woolard said.

In 2006 at age 41, Woolard became president of BrightSource Energy, which built three of the country’s largest solar energy plants in the Southern California desert. “We did enough solar to serve 170,000 homes.”

Last July, Woolard joined Google, where he is vice president of energy.

Google uses a lot of energy in its data centers and other facilities, “so we try to make sure we are doing it efficiently,” and the company also buys a lot of renewable power, Woolard said.”

John is living the life of a helper—his own brand of that species. His is a life that creates a synthesis of both his professional ambition and skill, as well as his devotion to energy conservation and environmental sustainability.

So, Cum Laude Inductees, the question you and all of your classmates will have to work out in the coming years is this: what are you going to do with your remarkable gifts? You have them, oh my goodness but do you have them. Tonight we name that for you. You are going to know enough, connect enough, excel enough. But how are you going to become the helper? The most valuable things you do in your life, the things that will most clearly define you, will be what you give and how you help.

Fred Rogers can provide us one more insight before I close this evening. For me, it reveals the beauty of the helper most simply:

“There was a story going around about the Special Olympics. For the hundred-yard dash, there were nine contestants, all of them so-called physically or mentally disabled. All nine of them assembled at the starting line and, at the sound of the gun, they took off. But one little boy didn’t get very far. He stumbled and fell and hurt his knee and began to cry. The other eight children heard the boy crying. They slowed down, turned around, and ran back to him–every one of them ran back to him. The little boy got up, and he and the rest of the runners linked their arms together and joyfully walked to the finish line. They all finished the race at the same time. And when they did, everyone in the stadium stood up and clapped and whistled and cheered for a long, long time. And you know why? Because deep down we know that what matters in this life is more than winning for ourselves. What really matters is helping others win, too, even if it means slowing down and changing our course now and then.”

If the members of this group of unique sprinters in a race choose to be helpers, you, my friends, you can be helpers as well, and you should be, and you must be.

Thank you.

The 9/11 Seawall and the Figurative Seawall: The Empathetic Community

My mother posted the YouTube link I attached below on Facebook last week, and combined with a ‘thank you’ for a good faculty meeting last Tuesday, I forwarded it along to the High School faculty thinking that some faculty members might want to show it to their homeroom advisories at some point. “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.

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.

[I have written before about something my mother forwarded my way—Tribute To Mrs. Alley ]

[I have written before about 9/11—September 11: I Could Not Stop Watching Because I Could Not Begin To Understand]