Photo: 9/11 Memorial at Ground Zero Where the Twin Towers Once Stood
Few days in my life have left as indelible a mark as September 11, 2001. This year, I've found myself reflecting more intently than usual as it marks a mid-point of sorts. I've now lived exactly half of my life in a pre-9/11 world and half of it in a post-9/11 one. Still, 18 years later, I can remember that day as vividly as if it were yesterday. Most people can tell you where they were at the exact date and time that the towers were struck, and I'm no exception. I had just begun my senior year of high school and was sitting in class when we all heard the news. One moment I was worried about a homework assignment, and the next I was watching a plane fly into a building less than 50 miles away on the television. I can still recall the tiniest details of that day in mental snapshots--panicked friends attempting to locate loved ones; frantically trying to call my mom from a pay phone in the hall but the phone lines being jammed; a schoolmate upset that her father may have been on one of the flights; my own family trying to track down relatives working in NYC; and the eerie feeling of witnessing the missing piece of the skyline in person across the bay from my hometown. It all felt so surreal; I thought the world was ending. In many ways it did end for the loved ones of the nearly 3,000 people who didn't come home that day. I recall over the next several days trying to get back to some semblance of normalcy but feeling as if I couldn't wake up from a bad dream--I knew many who had been directly impacted, witnessed hope waning for the still missing, and lived with fear that the attacks still weren't done. Prior to that date, I only had a vague understanding of what terrorism was, couldn't find Afghanistan on a map, and certainly had never heard the name Osama bin Laden before--for my 18-year-old self, the 24/7 news cycle was suddenly painting the world as a much darker and more dangerous place than i had envisioned it.
Amidst all of the fear, anger, and grief in the weeks following 9/11, though, compassion and empathy arose like a phoenix. I remember so vividly coming together as a stronger community. People took the time to care about one another and focus on the things that truly mattered. It served as a wakeup call of sorts. We prioritized being there for friends who had experienced unimaginable loss, volunteering, offering strangers a helping hand, going to church, and reconnecting with loved ones. For those few short weeks, there were no "great divides," we were just the United States standing united with our fellow citizens.
Things have inevitably changed over the last 18 years--some for the better, some for the worse. We've waged wars and witnessed more attacks around the world. High school graduates now only know about 9/11 as a historical event but terrorism as a part of their daily vocabulary. Ground Zero has been transformed into a beautiful memorial to the lives lost. I no longer fear the world the way I did back then; I've traveled to 36 countries and have met wonderful people of all religions and backgrounds. The 9/11 attackers were cowardly extremists who do not represent the world at large, and ultimately, if we let fear win, we let the terrorists who attacked us that day win.
Eighteen years ago, we promised that we would never forget the sacrifice of the 2,977 lives lost on 9/11. Just as importantly, though, we need to hold on to the lessons we learned following those tragic events--the reminder that tomorrow is promised to no one and the present is a gift. Today, remember all of the wonderful lives that were cut too short by prioritizing what's truly important, being present in the moment, showing kindness to others, being there for those who need you, hugging your loved ones a little tighter, and not putting off saying "I love you" until tomorrow.