Sunday, September 13, 2009

9/11 and facing crisis

You can't know who a person really is until you pluck him out of his quotidian circumstances and force him to face alien situations. This is why people have long believed that crises are tests of character and mettle. True: we each face a new state of affairs at every moment, but thanks to a combination of genetic nature and cultural nurture, we're programmed from childhood to know how to handle the demands of whatever counts as normal for us, no matter our cultural and genetic makeup.

But how do we perform when the normal is ripped away? Being a New Yorker down the street from the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001 must have been such a test. Being a passenger on United Flight 93, or being in or near the Pentagon on that same day, must have been similarly jarring. How do people react in such situations? Do they say, "It's not my affair" and walk nonchalantly away? Do they watch with horror and pity, yet do nothing? Or do they get involved as constructively as possible?

Crises plunge us into an alien environment, a new and unfamiliar world in which, at least for a short while, we find it hard to get our bearings. Our bodies all react instinctively in such situations, but each person's bodily reaction is unique. Some people find themselves filled with fear; others seem able to take violent change in stride. But along with the physical, there's the mental-- the exercise of will. A person initially filled with fear can, if he so desires, master that fear and function, but some people, when faced with crisis, forget they possess a will and simply give in to their emotions. For such people, rationality goes out the window.

I've seen the best and the worst in the human heart as we've dealt with our own family crisis. Some in our circle of care have reacted with denial, unable to face reality, yet ready to blame others should Mom's health undergo a downturn. Others, also in denial, have offered therapies and remedies based on pseudoscience and superstition. I don't doubt that any of these people is well-intended, but such reactions really do nothing to help the situation; in fact, far from helping to impose order on chaos, they make a hard job harder.

Other people, however, have truly shone in the face of crisis. The outpouring of help and concern for our family has been amazing to experience, not to mention humbling. The number of people who have visited Mom and held her hand is a reassurance that there's plenty of good in the world, an insight I saw firsthand during my meager 600-mile walk last year. Cards, food, a new wheelchair ramp that has already seen use many times over-- examples of care are legion, and we're all very thankful to know that Mom is surrounded by such love and friendship. We're lucky to belong to so many communities that, collectively, show such sterling character in the face of crisis.

New Yorkers, the folks at the Pentagon, and the local residents and professionals at the United 93 crash site all demonstrated similar fortitude when confronted with heart-wrenching adversity. Over the years, 9/11 has become a time of remembrance, a day to honor the dead and to reaffirm our resolve in the face of terror. But it should also be a day when we remind ourselves that, at our best, we can shine in times of crisis. And that particular reminder should echo in our heads every single day, not just on 9/11, and not just when dealing with major disasters.

When your world is torn asunder, keep your balance, and don't lose your head. To those who are already acquainted with this wisdom: thank you.


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