There’s something inherently awkward about tragedy that happens by you, but not to you. It’s hard to know how to react. When something awful happens to an acquaintance, knowing where the line between imposing and not properly addressing the gravity of the situation can make one feel confused, guilty and all sorts of weird.
Ten years later, I admit that this is how I felt on September 11. I was nineteen. I lived in Michigan. I’d never been to New York City. More importantly, the most notable national moments in my lifetime had been the Challenger disaster and OJ Simpson’s car chase. And I was four when Challenger happened, so OJ was pretty much it. Beyond being horrified by the facts of the day and the video on our TVs, no one in my generation had any idea of what this meant, or how it related to us. How could we?
It is clear to me now that we were truly all attacked that morning. Our way of life was threatened, and we didn’t know how to deal with it – especially those of us who didn’t have a person to mourn or a disrupted community to repair. Ten years ago we just woke up and realized that there was something to fear. After a fairly carefree couple of decades, we had to look up from our dorm rooms and our soccer games and take notice of a world in which we’d simply grown too secure.
It’s understandable that being removed from that security has made people angry and frustrated. I’d like to suggest, however, that we need to stand up to that fear. It’s time to stop the anger. It’s true that every generation has its trials, and that each is defined by how it negotiates them. I want to be part of the generation who says that while we were attacked, though our way of life was threatened, we did not let it consume us. We did not get swallowed up in fear and anger. We grew, we became wiser, and we regained our optimism. We remembered that happiness and hope is what makes America great.
I watched some of the amazing stories featured in Time’s “Beyond 9/11” issue this week. I was struck by the optimism of the survivers, and of the families whose loved ones did not survive the attacks. A decade later, one of the only four men who managed to escape from above the 78th floor finished his testimonial by saying he had no trouble telling his harrowing story anymore. It used to be hard, but he has no emotion left in the retelling; it’s like watching it on TV, he said. He’s put it behind him and is simply thankful for every day he has.
If a man who watched a plane fly into his building from the 78th floor and managed to survive while so many he knew did not can say that he has only optimism and happiness in his heart every day, can’t the rest of us? Can’t the people from Missouri and Colorado and here in Michigan who were lucky enough to have been nowhere near New York, Virginia or Pennsylvania that day – can’t we let go of our anger and fear too?
I know there needs to be action steps here, not just a plea for empty optimism. I don’t know what they all are, but I know what I want them to feel like. I want us to remember how to disagree without disrespecting each other. I want policy discussions, not political fights. I suggest we redefine a political victory as not something that happens in November, but as a journey that begins with people sitting down together and compromising for the good of their constituents.
I believe this challenge is one my generation needs to address. We need do more than write “hope” and “change” on a bumper sticker and wait for someone else to achieve or fail to achieve whatever it was we meant by it. We need to wake up every morning and live hope and work for change. Optimism isn’t a default setting. It’s a skilled craft; it’s a life’s pursuit; and it’s a shared heritage that each of us should feel charged to step up and reclaim.