Updated reflections on The 9/11 Seawall and the The Empathetic Community

(The World Trade Towers and the QEII Photo:Neal Boenzi/The New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2011/09/08/us/sept-11-reckoning/towers.html#1

[As we head toward the fifteenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, I am reposting (with some revisions) something I wrote several years ago that still reflects my thinking about the primacy of creating and sustaining a community that prioritizes empathy. Since posting this in January of 2012, I have seen many examples of people on a kind of figurative seawall facing challenges that threaten to become overwhelming. Additionally, I recognize that we have all stood on our own seawall at various points in our lives. When we are in immediate and pressing danger like those in need of rescue on 9/11, it is human nature to raise our hands and voices for help. It is more difficult to raise our hands when the challenges we face are less visible.  Living within an empathetic community makes it more possible for those who suffer in silence to gain the strength to raise their hands for help, and an empathetic community rises to the occasion when called. Beneath my reflection on the video entitled “Boatlift” are comments I made to an assembly on September 11, 2011 at The Westminster Schools on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.]

“Boatlift”, the story of the boatlift from the lower end of Manhattan on 9/11 is compelling viewing for many reasons. I found it especially fascinating because I had no prior knowledge of the fact that there was a significant boat evacuation on that day, and I certainly did not know it was the largest such evacuation in history. Even more significantly, however, I was drawn to the heroic actions of the people who moved so quickly to help others while placing their own safety in  jeopardy. Please watch it:

At about the 4:18 mark in the video, I was struck by the statement of  Kirk Slater: “It’s just human nature…you see people on the seawall in Manhattan begging you to pick them up, you have to pick them up.” I found myself thinking that while we are not running from collapsing buildings and faced with the potential prospect of having to jump into the water to avoid the smoke and dust of the Twin Towers, we have all spent some time on our own figurative seawalls (though our seawalls probably don’t lend themselves to dramatic soundtracks, and Tom Hanks is not likely to accept the job of narrating the documentary). On 9/11 the clarity of calling and purpose was clear to the men and women who stepped up to help the people stranded at the furthest edge of Lower Manhattan. It is far more difficult to assess and react to the seawalls upon which other members of our community may find themselves.  The routines of our lives allow us to forget others at times. We can find ourselves living as if the other people are merely actors in our play.

Successful communities discover ways to fend off this kind of empathy forgetfulness. Such communities create and maintain high expectations for our awareness of and respect for others. These places bring to day to day life many of the same skills that were manifest in the actions of every person who reached out helping hands on 9/11.


September 11: I Could Not Stop Watching Because I Could Not Begin To Understand (A Reflection on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks):  

On September 11, 2001, I was teaching at a boarding school in the mountains of Western North Carolina, and I remember that I had a distinct sense that the events of that day would be etched in the memory of each of my AP Literature students for the rest of their lives. I wanted, more than any other moment in my career, to be a good teacher that day.
During my classes while we listened to the fast moving news on a sorry old portable radio, we wrote and talked about what was most important to us, and we struggled to reconcile the startlingly beautiful and verdant view out of my fourth floor classroom windows with the reality of events in New York, in Pennsylvania, and in Washington DC.  In the days to come I watched the footage of the planes disappearing into the World Trade Center over and over and over again.  I could not stop watching because I could not begin to understand.
Just days earlier in August of 2001, the nation had been focused on a debate about the relative merits of stem-cell research.  It was an intense debate—the president, the Congress and the news media had the topic running on the high rotation of the 24-hour news cycle and the high octane of charged rhetoric.  Many pundits were positing that this debate would in the end define the legacy and the relative success of George W. Bush’s Presidency.  The events of September 11, 2001 suddenly made the Stem Cell Debate seem like ancient history and the effort to define a president’s legacy seem trite.
Nearly 3,000 Americans lost their lives that day—ordinary citizens, firefighters, police, and rescue workers. Those who died were on airplanes, in the World Trade Center, or in the Pentagon, and in a couple of hours the lives of their families and this nation were forever changed.  Since that day close to six thousand U. S. Service men and women have been killed in the conflicts that have grown out from the 9 11 attacks, and many times that number have returned home as casualties.
So today, in anticipation of this sad anniversary, we honor the memory of the victims of that attack, and we honor those that serve the public good and put their lives in harm’s way in response to those in need.  We also honor all the members of the armed services and their families for the unfathomable commitment they have made to our country since that horrible day in 2001.  We cannot understand the extremes of such commitment and should not pretend to unless we have made it ourselves; instead we should simply say thank you and do all we can to support them, while recognizing that the price for preserving our nation rests unequally on the shoulders of our citizens.

DNA Tests and the House of Humankind

Please watch the video above before reading my comments.

I must admit from the start that I have not had DNA testing and thus cannot claim that I have felt the full power of the experience the people in the video felt upon receiving their results. However, I was powerfully affected by watching the story unfold over five and a half minutes, and I recognize there is extraordinary likelihood that I would be similarly surprised by the circuitous routes my various ancestors followed that led to my birth. I do not well up often, but I welled up watching the end.

Watching it today was perhaps doubly powerful as I have just read Jon Meecham’s 2015 piece, “G and G Interview: John Lewis”,  in Garden and Gun Magazine about John Lewis and his life as a leader within the Civil Rights movement. There are a few quotations that stood out to me made every more powerful because I have heard Lewis’ voice enough that I can hear it as I read his words.

Here are a couple of quotations from the article:

  • “For Lewis, the civil-rights struggle always centered around whether the best of the Southern soul (the grace and the love, the godliness and the generosity) could finally win out over the worst (the racism and the hatred, the fear and the cruelty).”
  • “I always felt growing up that in the South there was evil but also good—so much good,” Lewis says. “We are still in the process of becoming. I am very, very hopeful about the American South—I believe that we will lead America to what Dr. King called ‘the beloved community.’ I travel all the time, but when I come back to the South, I see such progress. In a real sense a great deal of the South has been redeemed. People feel freer, more complete, more whole, because of what happened in the movement.”
  • “The march of 1965 injected something very special into the soul and the heart and the veins of America,” Lewis says. “It said, in effect, that we must humanize our social and political and economic structure. When people saw what happened on that bridge [The Edmund Pettus Bridge], there was a sense of revulsion all over America.”
  • “In the final analysis, we are one people, one family, one house—not just the house of black and white, but the house of the South, the house of America,” Lewis says. “We can move ahead, we can move forward, we can create a multiracial community, a truly democratic society. I think we’re on our way there. There may be some setbacks. But we are going to get there. We have to be hopeful. Never give up, never give in, keep moving on.”

With the backdrop of the DNA video, I am particularly interested in Lewis’ last quotation. The end of the video illustrates point worthy of the hope Lewis expresses. As the participants realize that they were not exactly who they thought they were, you can see it dawn on them that they are more than they thought they were.  I am struck by the idea that humankind’s work is not about bringing separate groups together; rather it is about remembering that we have never been apart. It is about remembering something deep inside us that recognizes what Maya Angelou gently reminds us: “We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.”

Garden and Gun Interview with John Lewis by Jon Meacham
Garden and Gun Interview with John Lewis by Jon Meacham


Garden and Gun Magazine
Garden and Gun Magazine

Bombasticball–Let’s Take Our Ball and Go Home

Cartoon by Elle Vaughn, member of the St. George's Independent School Class of 2017
Copyright Elle Vaughn, member of the St. George’s Independent School Class of 2017 (used with permission)

It seems everybody is playing it. They are playing it in politics, in media, around water-coolers, after church on Sunday, in school hallways, on social media post comment threads, in post-game interviews, in the stands at High School (or Middle School or Elementary School) athletic events. Bombasticball.

Cartoon by Elle Vaughn, SGIS, Class of 2017
Copyright Elle Vaughn, SGIS, Class of 2017 (used with permission)

Bom-bas’tic-ball, n. a game played with sharpened tongues where combatants duel by hurling high-sounding, turgid prose (the “ball”) back and forth to try to gain points. Players prepare for matches by rehearsing in front of others they perceive as like-minded in an exercise called “preaching to the choir.” Such competitions are given to hyperbole, red-herrings, non-sequiturs, hasty generalizations and other logical fallacies. The dominant player, often winning as a result of volume and/or deployment of a strategy called “Filibluster” *, receives a brief feeling of righteousness, which can lead to the creation of dependency on the game. In short, one might begin by playing it and end up being played by it.

The risks of too much bombasticball in a competitive regimen include spiritual corrosion, misplaced priorities, isolation from viewpoints that might inform a thoughtful revision of an opinion, and pride (not the good kind).

Copyright Elle Vaughn, SGIS, Class of 2017 (Used with Permission)
Copyright Elle Vaughn, SGIS, Class of 2017 (used with permission)

*Fili-blus-ter, n. ineffective loud, aggressive, or indignant talk such as a prolonged speech that obstructs progress toward real solutions but may indeed be the positive difference-maker in games of bombasticball.

Your Education: About You, Not About You

With Manny Ihomne after his chapel reflection
With Manny Ihonme after his chapel reflection

On Friday Manny Ohonme, CEO of Samaritan’s Feet, visited the Collierville Campus of St. George’s Independent School. The goal of Samaritan’s Feet is to provide shoes for ten million young people living in poverty around the world. You can learn more here:

This year our Friday chapel services are for grades 6 – 12. In the past the Upper School (9 – 12) and the Middle School (6 – 8) only came to gather as a full group rarely–convocations, holiday celebrations. As part of an effort to knit our community together more tightly, bringing us all together in chapel only makes sense. It is a weekly reminder for us that we are connected, that we are part of something bigger than ourselves and that our shared space and experience at SGIS is valuable and powerful.

When he spoke to our group Friday, he celebrated our school’s diversity and our privilege to be a part of the SGIS community. He reminded us of just how rare it is in the world to have some of the things we may at times take for granted–friends, families, education, food, shelter, and…yes, shoes. He offered us the sort of perspective one garners when exposed to people who have vastly different life experiences than our own. I believe this exposure is imperative for every students’ growth. It is core to the SGIS approach, and it is a large part of the reason I chose this school for me and for my family.

After the service was over, I thought again of something I have often talked about and written about, that is, education is a gift. In fact, it is on the short list (right beside love of family and good health) of the greatest gifts we might ever receive. Our education is indeed ours–no one can take it away once we have it. It goes with us even if we lose everything else. It guides us and prepares us for what is ahead. So..it is ours. It is about us.

But it is also not about us. Most interestingly perhaps, our education exists only as we make meaning from it and as we are moved toward action in the world as a result of it. The questions I have for all of us who have had the privilege of an education such as the one at SGIS–

  • What will we make happen as a result of our education?
  • How can we use our education to impact the world around us?
  • How can we make our education not simply about us?
  • How can we continue to learn from people who have different backgrounds, different opinions?
  • How can what we already know lead us to want to learn more, understand more, impact more?