I have purposefully never posted anything about 9/11 on my blog or Facebook page. Each year, I’ve passed the day with a reverent silence on social media–but it hasn’t been silence out of respect, as one might presume, although I do, very much respect. I’ve been silent, because I haven’t known what to say. Or more truthfully, I had nothing to say. There has always been this part of me that feels like a fraud trying to join in on the conversation.
I have never cried over September 11, 2001. I never hurt or felt the fear, numbness, and confusion that so many have told me they felt. Honestly, I have absolutely no frame of reference for the events of that day. I’ve often heard older people talk about “where they were” when JFK was shot. And I hear the same thing from my generation in regards to the terrorist attacks on 9/11. “Where were you?”
Where was I?
I was serving as a Mormon missionary in the state of Washington. My companion (you’ll always find us in twos) and I had been assigned to teach and minister to an area covering two cities on the west coast of Puget Sound–Kingston and Bainbridge Island.
It was a Tuesday morning and just like every Tuesday morning, we had gathered at the church for a meeting with all the other missionaries in our zone. A zone includes roughly 20 missionaries from about eight or so cities in the area, and each week, we came together to report our successes, discuss our struggles, and receive spiritual instruction.
When Elder Snyder walked in that morning, he said one of the members of his congregation had called to tell them that the United States had been attacked. My immediate reaction was disbelief–not as in shock, but as in, I really didn’t believe him. I told him that someone was just messing with him.
As missionaries, the popular culture media intake is zero. No television. No radio. No computer. No newspapers or magazines. No cell phones. (At least that’s how it was “back then.” Things have changed a little bit since 2001–missionaries now have cell phones for missionary purposes only and they often use iPads in their lessons, proselyte via Facebook, and email their families each week.) So when Elder Snyder said we’d been attacked, I had no way to confirm it, and as it seemed ridiculously unbelievable, I didn’t believe him. We went about our meeting and then headed back to our areas.
For some reason, my companion and I decided to check in at home before we went to work for the day (probably because the only way to check our voicemails was through the answering machine attached to the wall in the kitchen). When we pushed play, we found that we too had multiple messages from members of our two congregations telling us that two planes had crashed into the World Trade Centers, that the United States had been attacked by terrorists.
Apparently, it was true. It was for real. But still, we hadn’t seen any images and so, for me, the whole thing was very difficult to place. We said a prayer and went out to start knocking on doors.
Everyone we encountered that day was glued to the television. Someone finally invited us in and I do remember the first time I saw the buildings. It was in a dark living room on a small TV with silver nobs. The two buildings were still standing, but they were on fire with smoke billowing. We prayed with the family and kept moving through the neighborhood. I never saw the buildings fall.
When I returned home at the end of my missionary service six months later, in my gorging on all the “missed media” (PS: Returned Missionaries, I do not recommend this.), I watched a documentary about September 11 with my dad. But as I did so, I found that I watched with what I can only describe as detached lenses. It was the first time I’d seen the depth of the coverage and breadth of the attack. It was the first time I saw the Trade Centers crumble. The twisted metal. The dust covered faces. But none of what I saw seemed real. I felt like I was watching a Hollywood blockbuster–nothing more than special effects at their finest. It didn’t really, couldn’t really happen–not in real life. And I’ve realized, that for me, in a sense, it didn’t.
For a long time, I’ve felt ashamed because of that–ashamed that I haven’t felt any anguish when it comes to that fearful and horrific day–like I shouldn’t be allowed to be an American anymore because I didn’t cry, didn’t feel anger, didn’t feel fear. And there is a disconnect between me and my fellow countrymen because of that. I feel like a foreigner looking in. But, I have no memories from which to draw those feelings. In lieu, there is only empathy. My heart does break to hear the stories, sincerely. But even that seems too little. When 3,000 people die as a result of such pure evil, there just … there should be more than empathy. I want more than empathy.
But as I’ve thought about “my” September 11, 2001 this year, for some reason, rather than remembering all the things I didn’t see and feel, I’ve been thinking about what I was doing. The slide show of pictures that keeps flashing in my mind is this: dozens upon dozens of front doors, my scripture-filled satchel bouncing against my black rain coat, and miles of sidewalks.
That whole day–that whole week actually, and on through the month–from sun up to sun down, we walked, knocking on the doors of strangers, offering to pray with them. Some declined. But many opened their homes–homes that normally would have been shut to us. In the face of fear, in the face of horror, in the face of uncertainty, tragedy, death, and war, we were able to bring a measure of comfort, hope, and light. We were able to remind people that God is there, even, and especially, in the midst of suffering and pain.
And for the first time, in thirteen years, I’m proud of my “Where were you on September 11” story. I wouldn’t trade the miles walked or feelings not felt for even an hour of news that day. My heart still longs to give more than empathy, but maybe the giving of comfort makes up for it.
Today, as we commemorate this anniversary, I hope we can remember. But more than remembering the terror, let’s remember humanity. Let’s reach out to those who might be living in fear, who have experienced loss, who are struggling to find a sliver of hope. Let’s be kind. Let’s give love. Offer a smile. Hold a hand. Hold a door. Let someone else go first. Say hello. Say a prayer. How can you make someone’s day better?
And to those who lost in every way that day, you are on my mind today. I’m pushing my love through space, willing it to land in your sphere, along with my prayers to heaven on your behalf. I hope you feel them buoy you up.