“I love the man that can smile in trouble, that can gather strength from distress, and grow brave by reflection.” –Thomas Paine
There are more lines to this quote, but this first part has always stuck out to me. It struck me the first time I heard it studying Thomas Paine in school and it’s come back to me many times since. It’s simple, directive, yet weighty in connotation – I love it for that.
Every September 11th two thoughts run through my head as I start my day. I think about my childhood friend and her stepdad who lost their mother and wife in the Pentagon. Simultaneously, in that moment of grief for them and others I’m incredibly thankful that my own dad, who was at work that morning like always in the Pentagon, made it home. Today is one of those days that we all share and don’t share at the same exact time. As a country, we watched together as the day turned from a sunny Tuesday morning to a confusing Tuesday afternoon to a devastating Tuesday night. But every person will tell you an individual story of where they were and what their experience was. It’s one of those days that’s burned into our collective memories for better or worse, and if we close our eyes we can recall more details from that one day than almost any other.
For me Tuesday September 11th, 2001 was a slow motion day of disbelief in a school only about a half hour outside of DC in a Virginia town heavily populated by military families, many of whom work in the 5 sided polygon, as teachers tried and failed desperately to keep students sheltered and calm. It’s almost strange not to think back to where I was today 16 years ago when the speakers in my Algebra class cracked to life. The shaky voice of the principal came over the intercom and the school went totally silent, as if all the air had been sucked out of the building. I can still feel what it was like wandering down halls wanting to reach out to home but terrified of even picking up a phone. Seeing tears around every corner as students sat on the floor in groups or hovered in corners holding themselves to keep from breaking and leaned against lockers unable to think of what to do next.
I can close my eyes and feel myself being hugged by people who were strangers an hour before, hugged just because they knew where my dad worked. What it was like finally running home from the bus much later than normal as the stars came out and not realizing how long I’d been holding my breath till I saw my dad sitting distraught and looking lost on the couch through our open front door. Sitting with my friend in her room on the edge of her bed hugging and silently crying just a few miles from where rescue crews were working. Sitting with her on the floor of their living room as we all waited for the list of names while our parents sat silent listening to news correspondents try to formulate coherent sentiments.
I know what day it is before my alarm goes off and I even hear the news click on. Before I start my NY Times app or open my social media feed. I know what day it is because there’s a pull to it, a weight to the hours that other days don’t have. I know what day it is regardless of what day of the week it falls on because of what it means to me, to my neighbors and friends. What it means to the families of men, women and children who lost their lives and everyone who carries their memories. What it means to the service personnel who have given their lives to protect our country and those who reenlist for another tour to continue that work.
For myself, and I know so many others, today is about reflection. It’s about taking time to honor and love and gather strength, and not necessarily about never forgetting the events that happened, the events that it set in motion, or the loved ones we lost, but about remembering that the people we are given and the time that we have, however long it shall be, should mean something. About seeking out the reasons to smile in the face of troubles and allowing ourselves to grow braver and more resilient after we reflect on where we’ve been and all that’s happened. I’m reminded of that and challenged to be sure to take all that I’ve been given and make it mean something, to make it count… Let it remind you today to make yours count too.