At this moment, I’m riding in a luxury town car through the green hills of rural Pennsylvania. I’m on my way to Kutztown University where I’ve been invited to speak. It’s September 11.
When I got the call from my agent, I was truly shocked that a school would book me on Sept. 11. Typically, I’m scheduled sometime during October, Disability Awareness Month. But when the surprise wore off, I noticed a slow, deep rumble in my soul. Something potent was brewing, and I started listening.
I’d never considered the intersection of my personal catastrophe with our national one. Where exactly did our stories meet?
At first, I had really no idea. I reached out to my Facebook community, wondering what came up for people on the anniversary. Many people responded, but rather than commenting on what feelings the memory brought, nearly everyone told the story of where they were on the day and how they felt at the time.
It wasn’t what I asked for, but it was super telling. Twelve years later, we still had the need to talk about it, to process once again all the things we felt. Shock, horror, fear, anger, pain, sadness… In differing proportion and degree, the same feelings were expressed by dozens of different people.
And I got to thinking about those emotions. They are the same feelings I had when I broke my back. And I realized there is little difference between a personal catastrophe and a communal one (except, of course, the communal part). They tear us the same way, punctuate our lives with the same, awful smack. And they offer the same opportunity.
That is where my story meets our story… in the opportunity.
So I’m not going to talk about the politics, what we did right or wrong. That’s not my area of expertise. What I know is something about dealing with the aftermath of catastrophe. In a nutshell, here’s what I’ll be saying about it.
All those feelings we have are profoundly human. They are our birthright, reasonable and justified…. AND…. In both cases, my personal history and the attacks of Sept. 11, there is an opportunity to stand aside from those feelings, even for just a moment, and consider…. What is really going on here?
I’m not talking about conspiracies or morality politics or foreign affairs. I’m talking about something deeper, something more universal. Without denying our feelings or calling them “wrong,” there is the chance to ask ourselves, who do I want to be right now? And how is that different from who I have been?
Because the truth is this: we don’t always have control over what happens to us, personally or collectively. But we do have command over how we respond. That is, if (and this is a very important “if”) we cultivate the ability to take a breath, look and listen. Whatever the adversity, at whatever level, there’s more to consider than will I beat this or be beaten by it. There is a powerful and profound third option: How can I move with this tragedy and be transformed?
That is the story of my life. I so hope it becomes the story of ours.