Sept. 11, 2001, taught us things that will never make it into the history books. It's time to pass those lessons on.
Today is the anniversary of 9/11.
Right now, there are teenagers walking around texting, having their first kiss, and skipping class who have lived their entire lives after Sept. 11, 2001. Isn't that crazy?
I've been thinking a lot about kids lately. I've imagined what it would be like to raise a little human one day, and I've pictured all the memorable experiences that we will share together.
But it hit me just how many major moments in world history, like 9/11, that I have lived through that will be nothing more to my kids someday than pictures in a textbook or the subject of a summer blockbuster movie.
These children will probably learn the details of that day in school. They will read how many people lost their lives and about the political response that ultimately led to the war in Iraq.
But that time was so much more than news events and politics. 9/11 taught us deep lessons about life, humanity, and ourselves that will never make it into a history book. Which of those special lessons will we pass on to the next generation? Here are my five:
1. There is no such thing as "far away."
From the moment the towers fell, the news was full of theories about American "interests" and actions abroad. For those of us who were younger and not personally connected to any country outside the U.S., it may have been the first time we'd really given any thought to the relationship between the other side of the world and our own personal lives — let alone Middle East politics. It was the awakening of the idea of global connectedness for us.
It also exposed us to the love and support of people all over the world who had no reason to care about our pain beyond the simple fact that we are all human. 9/11 taught us that what happens in one place has ripple effects that extend across the globe. We should never stop looking out into the world and paying attention to issues, cultures, and global realities different from our own. We should never stop recognizing that it's our common humanity and our capacity for empathy that connect us all.
2. You can't put a timeline on healing.
Just last month, survivor Marcy Borders — who was photographed covered head to toe in dust in an iconic 9/11 photo — died of cancer at the age of 41. She believed that her illness was directly connected to effects from that day. And she may have been right. The CDC's World Trade Center Health Program reports that thousands of survivors and first responders have been diagnosed with cancers that resulted from the attack.
Healing from trauma can take an unpredictable amount of time.
These stories and the stories of survivors still battling PTSD offer us a valuable lesson: Just as America is still dealing with the vicious legacy of slavery over a century later, just as victims of childhood abuse may struggle with the effects well into their adulthood, healing from trauma in any form can take an unpredictable amount of time. The scars aren't always obvious and they usually can't be erased with a quick fix.
That's why we have to be able to look beyond what we can immediately see to be compassionate, understanding, and supportive of those who have been hurt — for as long it takes.
3. Behind every major headline is one person's story begging to be heard.
For weeks after the attacks, you couldn't turn on the TV without seeing a slideshow of faces. Every photo of a 9/11 victim was accompanied by a name and a story. Every person became more than just a number. They became real. Seeing their pictures and stories made me feel love and solidarity in a way that opened up my heart.
I learned then about something called statistical numbing. It's why we're less able to process the pain of thousands of people dying than we are when we hear the story of the loss of a single life. 9/11 helped me to think of every major story in the headlines — the mass genocide, hunger, and injustice that we hear about every day — as one person's story. Remembering this lesson can grow your heart a thousand times and inspire true empathy.
4. Your values will always be challenged in times of chaos. And that's exactly when they matter most.
I recently asked a friend of mine what she remembered about 9/11. Her answer shook me to my core. For her, it was the day that she started being harassed and mercilessly bullied at school. That was the day her parents sat her down and told her she was no longer safe. And that was the day that set in motion a series of events that ultimately forced her Muslim American family to move to a different neighborhood for fear of hate crimes.
After 9/11, America was so gripped with grief and panic that we allowed some of our most important values — diversity, equality, and privacy, for example — to be overtaken by fear. Just a quick look at the hashtag #AfterSeptember11 on Twitter reveals how many people are still suffering the consequences of this. What I learned in the aftermath of 9/11 is that, in the face of fear and chaos, it's vital to hold on to your values tightly. It may be difficult, but that's when those values are most at-risk.
5. There is a never-ending supply of good in the world.
It sounds cheesy, but over and over again, we see that in the midst of terrible times, the good in people continues to shine. Americans all over the country came together after 9/11. For a moment in time, all races, ethnicities, and religions joined together to mourn those who were lost, to rebuild what had fallen, and to create a renewed sense of community. It wasn't the first time that happened — and it certainly wasn't the last.
We saw it after Hurricane Katrina, after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, and after the shootings at Sandy Hook. We continue to see it on a day-to-day basis. Like when thousands of people sent money to help a stranger they read about on the internet. 9/11 taught me the true value and impact of compassion. Our task, each and every day, is to live our lives at peak goodness and humanity — even when we're not in a crisis situation. If we do that, we'll never lose our sense of hope that the world truly can be a better place.
These are just a few of the lessons that I hope every child takes with them when they learn about Sept. 11, 2001.
What lessons would you share?