How to Remember 9/11 by Forgetting
I was in Washington DC on 9/11. I remember the moment quite well.
I walked downstairs and headed over to my neighbors house to see if I could get a ride into campus. I was attending George Washington University at the time, but I was living out in North East DC. My neighbor often gave me rides into school on that day of the week and I was running late.
So I knocked on the door and he opened the door to let me inside. The first thing he asked was, “Have you been watching TV?” I told him no and asked, “Why is something going on?”
He told me that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. So I sat down to watch the coverage. In what felt like mere moments, the second plane hit the towers, which confirmed what we had feared. The apparent accident was an attack.
Over the next hours the drama unfolded not only on television, but in parts of DC we knew so well. Rumors ran rampant. There was a fire on the national mall. There was a bomb at the State Department.
Many of those rumors turned out to be false, but the one about a plane hitting the Pentagon turned out to be true. I remember walking up to the roof of our town house to see the smoke rising in the distance.
Probably the worst part was not being able to call anyone to ask if they were ok or to tell anyone we were ok. The cell system all but shut down with the overload of phone calls.
Realizing there was little we could do and that the city was on lock down. We did the only thing we could. We drank beer, had a barbeque, and spent hours and hours watching the news.
Now Years Later
Now years later, the whole day seems even more surreal. How that one day unfolded and then history soon followed. I remember seeing humvees on street corners in DC as I went to class. I remember our collective shock and the decisions it lead us to make. Some which were compassionate, some that were foolish and short sighted.
Despite how it all played out there is a sense in this country that we must never forget that day. Some think we should remember so that we remain vigilant to any potential threat. Others want us to remember because of the terrible loss they experience.
I choose to remember that day, as a reminder that the future is unpredictable and that I must find solace in what I have in this moment.
Not matter why we remember this day stands apart and being a touchstone moment in history. But as I reflect on this day I begin to wonder, “How can we remember a day so important and also learn to let go and find healing?”
One of the fundamental teachings of mindfulness is that holding on to anything leads to suffering. If we try to hold onto something good, we suffer because it won’t last. And if we try to hold onto something, difficult we suffer because to heal we have to move forward.
This all makes sense when we think about things like a break up or losing our jobs. But when we think about the huge tragedies of our lives it becomes much stickier. When big events happen like 9/11 or a loss of someone who is close to us letting go is easier said than done.
We begin to feel that if we let that person or day go we are dishonoring those we lost. Even though it hurts to hold on tighter, loosening our grip means losing them all over again. And so, we become stuck in a cycle of grief and remembrance. Unable to undo the events that haunt us, but unable to move forward.
How to Remember and Let Go
When I began to think about this problem I realized that there is a way to hold both of these realties in our hearts at the same time. Too often, we think we must choose between honor or release and memory or healing.
But my practice of Zen Buddhism has taught me that we can honor both parts of ourselves. And in doing so we can find a way forward that encompasses our deep love for others and our need to continue moving forward with our lives.
Honoring the Whole Life
One way to do this is to honor the whole life of the person or people including death.
Close your eyes and imagine their birth. Watch as they learn to crawl and walk. Watch them grow and gain knowledge. Continue watching as their life blossoms and changes.
And then watch their lives end. Buddhists believe that at the moment of death all bodily suffering is thought to cease. So, even if they died in difficult circumstances watch as they pass from this life to a place of peace and freedom.
Then once you’ve played out this whole story try to imagine this whole life in front of you. Imagine you are stepping back to take in the whole story line. Try to see the wholeness of this life you are holding.
Try to see that death is just one part of this whole picture. Appreciate all that this life held and feel the warmth of that life in your heart. Ask yourself, how I can honor my whole life as well as theirs? How can my engagement act as tribute to their whole life and not just their death?
Honoring the Ripple
Here is another technique that may help you connect with the reality that the goodness each person create continues long after they are gone.
First, close your eyes and imagine the person as they were at their best. Remember or imagine some act of kindness they did. It could be as simple as smiling at someone or something more significant like teaching someone to read or saving a life.
Imagine that act as a tiny ball on energy that travels forward. See the person who received the smile passing it on to others. See the child who learned to read doing better in school and going to college. See the life that was saved helping others and paying back this precious gift.
Keep going watching the goodness go from person to person, spreading out. You can either follow one line or pull back and watch it spread like ripples on a map. Imagining the small acts that spread out from each person as they are touched by this energy.
Imagine that person standing next to you and watching this happen with you. Feel as both of you see the goodness and joy that this person’s life has brought so many people.
Then imagine the energy inside of you for all the good things this person gave you. Ask yourself how can I pass this on? How can I honor this person not just by remembering them, but also by passing this energy on?
The power of both of these exercises is to help us see a person’s life for more than just it’s end. Loss is extremely painful and nothing can ever remove the hole in our hearts that is created by great tragedy. But we can fill that hole with something else.
By using the powers of visualization, we can begin to fill that hole with compassion and love. We can learn to honor our own pain and grief without letting it consume us.
So on this day I encourage every to forget the question how can I best remember the tragedy of 9/11. And instead, I invite you to look into your heart and ask how can I embody the strength, courage, and compassion that so many people showed on that day.