Light From the Darkness: The Day After 15 Years After 9/11


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Monday, September 12, 2016

"I remember exactly that moment when the whole world stopped & we saw each other standing there. Wondering how we ever forgot that we are all light wanting to shine for each other." - Brian Andreas, StoryPeople

Yesterday I tried to write a blog post about 9/11.  Well, if I’m honest, I started trying to write it on Friday.  Didn’t work.  Didn’t work Saturday, either.  Yesterday I made it a little way, but it was crap.  I don’t know where to start, or what to say.  

I think the 9/11 anniversary day ends up being a wash nearly every year for me.  I saw on Facebook that a friend’s husband leaves every year on 9/11 and goes somewhere quiet and off-the-grid.  I reckon that’s a good approach.  I learned a long time ago to stay off social media, and the internet.  Yesterday I made a few quick forays into both, but immediately got spun up and jumped back offline.

This year’s 9/11 seems more notable in many ways because it was a milestone… only in that we have a base-10 numbering system, and increments of 5 are notable.  Even given that, though, I have had this day on my radar all year.  Well, I mean 9/11... not the day after.  I don’t know why, except that I thought that maybe we should make a big deal of it.  Yet in the weeks leading up to it, I actively avoided looking at anything that looked like it was making a big deal of it, and have tracked the news significantly less than normal. 

Who knows the reasons.  I’m not sure I need to dig into it.  I do know this:  quite a lot of my daily life has focused on 9/11 for an incredible amount of time.  It is only in the last year that I have pulled back more significantly from that, most notably in leaving the field of emergency management.

I would like to have a life that doesn’t focus on 9/11.  In almost all of the everyday things I do today, I do have that.  It is a major contrast to my focus in the first many years after 9/11.  In the first year after, my life revolved entirely around 9/11, and then I took a sort of step back… but my attention didn’t shift too heavily.  By 2004, I had moved to Washington, DC.  At that time, even three years later, everything I worked on and everyone I worked with was still pretty focused on that day.  It wasn’t just the work:  it was the community.  The community was attacked, and the government itself.  In Washington, government is the heart and soul driving everything… whether people are directly tied to it or not.  The city lives and breathes government.  People took the attack very, very personally.  They would tell you where they were standing when they first saw the smoke at the Pentagon.  The majority of my friends even outside of work had jobs that related to the attacks in some way. 

Time passed.  Programs worked, or didn’t.  Policies evolved.  Hurricane Katrina hit, and caused some things that were just getting rolling to pivot off their original track.  Policy-wise, I think it led to some backtracking.  

More disasters happened.  Time passed.  Momentum withered.  Political change and elections diluted some of the original post-9/11 intentions.  By the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, a sort of stasis had set in.  Major post-9/11 change was no longer a driver.  Too much time had passed, and the motivation, the fear, and the emotion were just not as strong.  In the homeland security world, people had mostly stopped talking about the 9/11 attacks themselves… even though the event was the reason DHS existed in the first place. 

I didn’t really consciously notice that we had stopped talking about the lessons we needed to learn from the attacks themselves until the spring of 2014.  I realized only a few days later that it was time to leave DHS.  I found a super perfect emergency management job where I could do some serious good, so I went and did it.  In that job, we talked a bit about 9/11.  The job involved the entire National Capital Region around Washington, DC, so part of our emergency preparedness work involved worst-case scenarios such as another 9/11-scale attack.  There was a sensitivity as well, because everyone in emergency management in the DC area knows someone who was at the Pentagon when it was hit, or someone who was involved in the response.  It is a sacred thing.  Those personal stories are always discussed with a certain reverence.  My own 9/11 story and connections are the same. 

Our reaction as a country is and was kind of similar.  It is a sacred thing.  Most in the US who were alive and at least at the age of young adults at the time remember the emotion.  The fear.  The incredible sadness. 

We reacted like many who are grieving do.  We lashed out.  We made sweeping changes.  We rearranged government.  We poured money into our wounds.  We remembered. 

It's Personal

"Not personal?!  That is my work, my sweat, my time away from my kids!  If that's not personal, I don't know what is!" - Erin Brockovich, in the movie of the same name

I think that I avoid 9/11 news and memorials and social media fuss because I add my own judgment into it.  My own experience since.  My bias.  My extreme empathy.  And my intolerance to anything that doesn't appear to be substantive.  9/11 is a sacred thing; it gets at the heart of so many people who I know and love.  I don't deal well with any perceived lack of reverence.

I know how I reacted to 9/11.  I gave up my career in wildland fire to move to Washington to help grow and evolve a National Incident Management System that floundered for years and has essentially withered to almost nothing of substance.  Along that path, though, I met literally thousands who were similarly motivated… each along their own path and passions.  I met people working in the intelligence community, in security, in homeland security, and those who deployed.  I met veterans – now veterans of multiple wars.  I met first responders. 

That’s my kryptonite, right there.  If you wanted to find where my heart is and where the damage lies, it is with my love for first responders, dispatchers, and emergency management people.  There is a sacredness there, and my heart breaks with the knowledge that with all that we saw on 9/11 and all that we had planned to learn afterward… we haven’t ultimately made things significantly safer, more effective, more efficient, or easier for first responders.  

We did try.  And things are improved.  We have iterated.  There has been much progress. 

What I struggle with on 9/11 is making peace with that.  With the knowledge of the whole story.  The story of what happened.  The story of DHS.  The shifts that have occurred.  The intentions that we had; intentions we didn’t meet. 

I have made some progress on my own peace-making.  It's been a long process, but the sun is coming out.  It's iterative too.  As a friend said recently, "if there wasn't darkness, we couldn't see the stars."

Light from the Darkness

Here’s some other stuff I took away from my own 9/11 journey.  The whole path hasn’t been one of heartbreak and loss.

I have seen the power of vision.  I have seen some ways that a powerful vision can hold the attention of a great many… for a long time.  I have seen it motivate action for change. 

I have seen the power of passionate people, working together for a common cause.

I have seen the power of holding space. 

I know what it means to truly support and listen and act according to what you have heard.

I know what is realistic to expect from government, and what is not.

I have seen the effects that partnership can create.

I know the meaning of collaboration and cooperation.

I understand the art of compromise.

I have seen amazing people show incredible love… for other people, and for a cause.

I have seen the sacrifice and investment of time.

I have seen the excitement that progress and innovation and synergy create.

I have seen the light that potential brings.  Potential projects, partnerships, programs.  Ideas are powerful.  Figuring out how to bring them into reality - and then doing it - is amazingly invigorating.

I have learned how to make the impossible work.  I get that it doesn’t always happen… but when it does, it is absolutely stunning.

I have learned that there isn’t just one way to move something forward, or to fix a problem.

I have learned that organic evolution of things can make more progress than a top-down approach, or even than something purposefully and carefully organized.  Social media, crowdsourcing, and technology have helped us evolve into areas we would not have seen or been able to otherwise problem-solve.  An openness to that, and to allowing for that is invaluable. 

I have learned that we can’t wait for someone, out there, or in government, or somewhere else, to solve our problems.  If we have problems, we have to find a way to solve them ourselves. 

THAT is what brought me to Counterfear.  That is where we are.  We have problems to solve, and we need to find ways to solve them.  We do it by allowing for it, by being open to it, by connecting with other people, and by having a bright and shiny vision.  We create resilience when we can do that.

We live in a world full of fear.  We can lament about terrorism, and active shooters, and the rising number of disasters.  The economy.  Politics.  Whatever. 

We also live in a world full of love, and light.  We live with amazing, shiny people full of laughter and ideas and hope and perspective.  We can anchor to each other and co-create awesomeness.  That is how we get it done.

That is a way we can honor 9/11.  That is a way we can Never Forget.  We live.  We love.  We build.  We learn, and grow, and evolve.

And we shine.

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POSTED: 2016-0912, 1422 hrs
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#NeverForget
#Sept11
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