My 4 Lessons from 9/11

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On the 20th anniversary of 9/11, the country reflects on the horrific events and the aftermath. To add to that reflection, I’d like to focus on four lessons that I still take away twenty years after the tragedy.

My hope is that we can still learn and grow from what we have and still experience from 9/11/01.

#1: When you don’t know what to do, serve someone else.

There was mass confusion and fear as the attacks were unfolding. Since no one knew what was really going on, if more attacks were coming, etc., it was natural for primal actions to kick in. Fight, flight and freeze are our defaults when we find ourselves in unknown situations. The unknown is a scary place because it challenges our feeling of safety. You literally don’t know what to do.

The events of that day showed that people who moved with the most purpose and did the most good were the ones that decided to serve others. Their stories are heralded still today. The first responders that went up the towers when everyone else was coming down, the people that carried others to safety and the ones that rounded people up and led evacuations… and the list goes on. When we focus on others in moments of stress for us, it gives us immediate purpose greater than ourselves and provides the motivation to do something in the face of fear.

#2: Our identity creates our reality.

After the attacks, we came together as a nation and had a sense of national pride. We identified as Americans and viewed the world from that lens. Over time, the things that divide us became our identities and we stopped identifying as simply Americans. We identified more with the sub-groups in our country. Our identities shape how we see ourselves and inform who are our “friends” as well as our “enemies”.

This is true in political terms and it’s true for individuals. If you identify as a leader, chances are you’re a leader. If you identify as someone who can’t ever catch a break… well, you get the picture. Be mindful about all your identities and how you see yourself, as it it a big determiner as to how you show up in the world, what you do and ultimately what you get from life.

#3. We get through things together.

Who did you turn to in the hours, days, weeks after the attack? Friends, family, colleagues? Did you lean into those relationships a bit more? You called on people for reassurance, people reached out to you. When we find ourselves in challenging spots, lean on relationships to get through it.

#4. Emotions are not always the result of a direct experience.

On 9/11 and the days & weeks following, I felt confusion, fear, sadness, anger without any direct experience of the attacks. I consider myself fortunate to not have been in any acute danger or have direct ties to the tragedy of that day. Yet, I still felt the same types of emotions as those that were involved directly, albeit not nearly as intense or long-lasting.

What matters in addition to your actual experience is your thoughts and emotions around it. Who we are as a people are the result of what we think & feel and how we internalize what is happening in our environment. In the wake of 9/11, based largely on emotion, some people joined the military, some people moved out of cities, some moved to cities, took jobs, left jobs, got married, got divorced. Pay special attention to your thoughts and emotions, as that will determine what your actions ultimately will be.

May we always remember the brave people that gave of themselves during that dark hour for our nation. May we also remember the lessons that we took away from that time so that we can continue to grow from that tragic day.