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Memories shape our worldview – and the way we remember shapes our future. Chris Breitenberg remembers September 11 2001.
This past Sunday marked the 10th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 bombings of the World Trade Center and Pentagon in New York City and Washington, DC, respectively.
I didn’t mark the occasion with anything significant, but many others in America did. In the morning, I saw some of the streaming memorial service from Manhattan that was covered by all major television networks. I turned on the afternoon football game, where uniforms, fields, silence and songs marked the tragedy. Throughout the day, the event was center stage.
The recurring theme of the day was simply: 'we will never forget'.
In 2001, as the world arrived fully in the age of globalization, 9/11 was the most significant and remembered news item of a generation. A moment many can recall with an exact memory. It was a moment when the world shifted – never to be the same again.
And yet it seems so long ago. I was a 20-year old student studying in Rome. I didn’t have a cell phone or digital camera. There was no Twitter, Facebook or Skype. I carried around a portable CD player to listen to music and saved files on 32MB floppy disks.
It was a time I will never forget. It was a coming of age. As the planes crashed, a certain naiveté left me forever. In the following days my worldview changed dramatically.
Looking back, I match three major realizations to that moment:
It’s a big world and there are a lot of people here. And not everyone sees things the same. The event itself demonstrated this gap dramatically, but I felt it more personally when interacting with regular Romans in the following days. The reactions ranged from overwhelming sympathy to apathy to almost violent antipathy. Human experiences and worldviews stretch oceans beyond our individual comprehension.
Distance is powerful.
As life carried on quite normally in Italy, I couldn’t even start to grasp the images I saw on TV of my fellow Americans at candlelight vigils and memorial events. It felt like another world. Hearing family and friends back home talking about it sounded more incomprehensible than the Italian I’d been studying for only 10 days. When I returned home in December, I felt a stranger in a strange land. As close as we get virtually, there is nothing like being there.
For a compelling reason, people will come together to do powerful things.
From the moment it happened and in the following days and weeks, I watched as people from near and far sacrificed a great deal to join hands and ease the suffering in the event’s aftermath. At the same time, I realized that the bombers must have been moved by something extremely powerful as well. Everyone had her individual reasons, but in both cases, some thing existed that was so charged that people were drawn to respond with incredible action – in unison.
I will never forget that day, but I will never forget these life lessons either. They shaped a platform of my own philosophy: People are wildly diverse and far apart from one another – but they can come together to do something extraordinary.
This summer, while attending the Caux Forum for Human Security, I had the opportunity to attend a lecture by Carl Stauffer, Academic Director of the Caux Scholars Program. He spoke about the concept of memory. The thesis of his lecture was that we, as humans, are biologically wired to remember everything. We must, therefore, be ready and willing to work with the past (memory) as a dynamic and ever-present force in our daily lives.
Watching the memorial events of the 10th anniversary, Stauffer’s message came to mind. My memory was sprinting. I remembered more than those three lessons. I remembered: The image of firefighters running into the building; the second tower falling; confusion; anger; everything in Italian; my homestay-Mom’s face; loneliness; sadness; American flags rising over Ground Zero; a stiff drink at three in the afternoon; volunteers serving work crews; so much metal; the call to arms; the man who spit at me; the 3 minute silence in Europe; the past 10 years…
As it all raged through my head, the message started to shift. ‘We will never forget’ changed course. It turned on its head. It became ‘who/what/when/where will we remember?’
Chris Breitenberg, from Virginia Beach, is member of the International Council with a focus on International Communications. He also works in the United States on "Trustbuilding Leadership", an IofC training initiative for university students.
NOTE: Individuals of many cultures, nationalities, religions, and beliefs are actively involved with Initiatives of Change. These commentaries represent the views of the writer and not necessarily those of Initiatives of Change as a whole.
Who we are: Initiatives of Change (IofC) is a world-wide movement of people of diverse cultures and backgrounds, who are committed to the transformation of society through changes in human motives and behaviour, starting with their own.
Purpose: We work to inspire, equip and connect people to address world needs, starting with themselves, in the areas of trustbuilding, ethical leadership and sustainable living.
Omnia Marzouk, President, IofC International
'Nothing lasting can be built without a desire by people to live differently and exemplify the changes they want to see in society.'