We often remember significant events not because they changed the world, but because they changed our own world.
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A turning point in my life came five years after the attacks. It was Patriot Day and I was in a very dark place in my life. I was doing poorly in school, had no good prospects for employment, and my personal life was in shambles.
The topic of the day was the 5th anniversary of the September 11 attacks. I really didn’t care about it. I was initially very stricken by the attacks, reading all I could on them, leaning towards the idea that it was our own government that did it, so on. After a couple of years, my own personal demons overshadowed those of the outside world; the 5th anniversary of anything wouldn’t cause me to bat an eye.
It was Monday and I was at school. After taking my usual spot in the rear right corner of the class, I noticed that someone I had never seen before was sitting in the front where the professor usually sat. The professor walked in a couple of minutes later. She explained that in lieu of class we would be hearing from a guest speaker—the man sitting in front. He was from Wales, and because we were studying medieval British literature, he would offer insight on the topic. Apparently he was a friend and past tutor of hers from university.
After introducing himself, he broke into his lecture. I don’t remember what he lectured on. With about thirty minutes left in class, he started to wrap it up. He then said he wanted to change the topic to Patriot Day. I thought it was strange that a foreigner would care enough to want to speak on my country’s problems, especially when I didn’t even care about them.
He said that he was glad to be in the United States on that day, that he was glad to be able to speak to fellow literature lovers about such a tragic event that no doubt shaped the world. He then asked the class how it had affected us personally. One classmate raised her hand and said that her uncle was a firefighter in New York and had helped during and after the attacks. Another classmate said he had a cousin that was visiting New York at the time of the attacks. The rest of the people who spoke talked of how it had affected them emotionally.
I sat there in silence. I started to drift back in my memories to that day, sitting in my high school history class, the teacher on his computer trying to keep up with the news and the TV tuned to breaking coverage. Towards the end of that class, my history teacher broke down. Through tears, he said that we would never forget this day, that the history books would all have to be rewritten. He told us to not be afraid, but I could tell he was scared. Later, my Mom came to pick me up from school early.
As I sat in class reliving the past, a distant voice caught my attention. I realized that it was my professor, and she was calling my name. A classmate next to me tapped my shoulder. She was asking me if I had anything to share. I shook my head.
The guest professor then ended the class with his story. He said on the day of the attacks, he was coming home from work. On the radio, the DJ was stating that something had happened in New York, USA. When he got home, he put the television on. It was morning in New York, just an hour or so after the second plane hit. He couldn’t believe what he was seeing. Images of the towers being hit, the fires, the debris, the people jumping out of the windows, the destruction.
“Who would do this?” he asked himself.
After a night of keeping up with the coverage, he turned the TV off and started turning in for the night. He was restless. He couldn’t sleep knowing that some people were at that very moment going through the worst tragedy of their lives. Others were experiencing yet another sorrowful moment in a life of sorrowful moments. He got out of bed and went to his study.
Looking for something to read, he grabbed a book that he hadn’t read for many years. Flipping through the Bible, he landed on a page that had been bookmarked before. (I don’t remember the exact passage or scripture.) The passage alluded to judgment by God unto the wicked. It said that those that believed in God would be saved.
He said he was agnostic at the time and still was. Sitting in his study, he started to cry, then wept. He cried out to God, asking why he would allow such horrors to happen. He then thought of all of the others in the world that were experiencing horrors in their own ways. He then started to understand religion, or at least one aspect of it. In life, we want to believe that there is an order to everything. We want to believe that there are answers to all of the questions, all of the wonders, all of the things that don’t make sense. When there is none, we get angry, and then scared.
He was scared. He was scared that the most powerful country in the world was brought to its knees by a small group of individuals with different ideologies. He was scared that it could happen to him, to his beloved country, just the same.
But the most frightening thing he was afraid of was that no one knows who is right and who is wrong. He was scared that he was a contributor to other people’s tragedies, that he wasn’t doing enough for them. That is what religion does for some people. It gives them hope. It gives them a purpose and a reason to live. Religious people are firm in their stances, they take a side and don’t falter. They may be wrong, but they won’t know it until they are long dead.
Although he had other problems with religion to hold him back from converting, this epiphany did change his outlook on his life. After that night, he saved up for a year to take a sabbatical. He went all around the world, helping and learning, teaching and observing. He met many people on his trip, learned of many different religions, cultures and morals.
He was finishing up his years long sabbatical in the United States. Coming full circle around the world, he wanted to end with a visit to the site of the attacks. He had never seen the World Trade Center in person, but as he stood where they used to be, he imagined towering and majestic entities that stood tall and effortless. He imagined the veins of the WTC, the offices and hallways, filled with the blood that provided life to those buildings, the many different people that worked there.
An older man walked up to him and asked if he knew anybody in the attacks. The older man’s son was a security guard for the WTC. He died in the attacks. They never found his body. After conversing for a bit, the older man had to take his leave. The guest professor asked him one last question: How did he feel about the attacks now? The older man just smiled and told him that he had accepted it, and that it was the greatest feeling in the world when he finally did.
The guest professor thanked us and left. I went home afterwards. I sat at my computer and felt empty. Everything he had said resonated with me even though I didn’t want it to. I wanted to go away, I wanted to say my goodbyes. I wanted to leave and for people to remember me in a good way before I did something bad.
But I didn’t feel like that anymore. The germs of an internal revolution were sparked in me. I started on my current path towards enlightenment. I’m still achieving it, and will do so till I perish. That is what 9/11 did for me.
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Through terror, we achieve acceptance of terror, and once we accept terror internally we can then start to balance the internal with happiness.