Carrying on May Be Our Best Weapon
Human beings are compelled to make sense of the world around them. What parent of a 3-year-old hasn’t found equal measures of delight and exasperation in their child’s inquisitiveness and bevy of “why” questions? Trying to make sense of the world and, specifically, people’s actions in it can be challenging for anyone at any age, but it’s what we’re hardwired to do.
American’s are reeling from an epidemic of gun violence and terrorist attacks. Last month’s Northern California elementary school shooting in Rancho Tehama, which killed four adults and wounded a child (and would have likely resulted in an even higher casualty count if not for the quick response of school staff in initiating a lockdown), is yet another horrific example of senseless violence. And just this week Americans reeled as news spread of an explosion below the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York City – just seven weeks after a terrorist used a rented truck to plow through a bike path crowded with pedestrians in lower Manhattan. These tragic and heartbreaking events have reminded me of my own visit to NYC two months after 9/11.
It was November 12th, 2001 and my youngest daughter and I were touring college campuses. As we walked Columbia University's campus admiring the neoclassical architecture, we noticed people pausing along the sidewalks, looking to the sky and speaking to one another in low voices. Apparently news of another plane crash in the city had just begun to spread and, understandably, people wondered with a degree of alarm if it was yet another terror attack.
Should we try to continue with the tour of campuses or get in the car and head for our home in Maine? Unsure, we returned to our vehicle in hopes of getting a news update on the car radio. It soon became clear that, while there was indeed a jet crash, this time it was a tragic accident unrelated to 9/11 or terrorist activity. Bound for the Dominican Republic, American Airlines Flight 587 had plunged into the water near JFK International Airport shortly after takeoff, killing 265.
Shaken but armed with the facts, we decided to carry on with the task at hand and complete our original itinerary. Late in the day I walked with my daughter to the former site of the Twin Towers. Though two months had passed since jumbo jets were intentionally flown directly into the buildings, forever changing the NYC skyline and American’s sense of security, barricades prevented us from seeing much of the area. Ash still drifted down from the sky. People were sitting on the sidewalks with tears or in prayer. In spite of the congregation of so many people, there was an eerie silence.
Getting back to business as usual can seem so odd, as if we’re unfeeling or denying life’s realities. It can bring a sense of guilt along with it. But carrying on is how we survive. Like so many others, I’ve tried to make sense of post 9/11 life, yet sixteen years after those horrific events, who can satisfactorily answer the question “why?” As a nation, our collective sense of safety has been diminished and we have become an anxious people.
A recent New York Times article, Outsmarting Our Primitive Responses to Fear, examines this anxiety – this state of "wary hypervigilance" – and its detrimental impact on mental health, but concludes that just “as fear can be contagious, so can courage, caring and calm.” We honor those who are gone by always remembering, yet carrying on in spite of our fears. And that’s exactly what the citizens of Rancho Tehama and New York City are doing. Simply carrying on may be the best weapon we have.