Yesterday was the anniversary of 9/11. Because in 2001, I promised along with most of the nation to never forget, I spent the morning reliving the events of that day—and then reliving the thirteen years that followed. I prayed for the families of the victims, the victims, and listened to their names being read, as I do every year.
It was a sobering recollection—especially considering the ISIL speech that had come the night before from the White House.
I’m not getting into the politics of this. Frankly, at times I find that aspect stunning, disheartening, and at times maddening. More often than not, it’s disappointing. My focus is on the character of people I observed yesterday.
Sources were limited. The networks didn’t air much of anything on the events. Tons of fluff, but nothing on the events that have altered the face and fabric of our nation. One cable news channel did air a great deal. I was grateful for it. It hasn’t forgotten, either.
On it, the character of Americans we hear far less about than their negatives was evident everywhere. Here are a few traits of the people that stood out to me:
- The police officer who saw the plane hit the first tower and ran toward the building to help those he could while so many others ran away (a normal, instinctive reaction). [Quite a stark contrast to the recent march against police officers claiming brutality, wasn’t it?]
- The reporter running for his life who saw a stunned woman standing, looking up at the burning tower and grabbed her, pulled her under a vehicle to protect her from being injured by falling debris.
- A store owner opening a sealed shut door to let others in even though the smoke rolling down the street outside would also come in with them.
- Teams of firemen entering the burning building to help others get out. (They had to do this knowing odds were against them getting out, but in they went.)
- People on the street washing ash out the eyes of strangers with bottled water, talking to them, listening to them, to help them process the shock.
- A father pushing a stroller carrying twins, running hard, trying to get his children to safety.
- People doing rubbings of the names of beloved victims, bowing their heads in prayer, placing flowers atop those names, tears flowing freely.
- Names being read in sob-choked tones of lost loved ones, clearly anything but forgotten.
- Children too young to remember the events firsthand being respectful, differential, and solemn, obviously grasping the magnitude of what occurred and all it meant.
- When the first tower fell and a mountain of roiling smoke engulfed the street, people were running for their lives. A man stumbled and fell to his knees. Not one but two men stopped, lifted him to his feet, and half-hauled, half-dragged him with them to safety.
Heroics. Everywhere. Character revealed.
Character isn’t just the willingness to stand up or to sacrifice for another. It is the willingness to stand up or sacrifice for another knowing it could cost you, perhaps your life—like the police officer and fireman, like those who helped the stumbler in the street—and that they all did what they did without hesitation—like the store owner who opened the door, and the man who grabbed the woman and shoved her to safety, that’s an amazing revelation of character. It speaks to compassion, humanity also, and that should be remembered and revered.
We often hear about how bad we are as people and as a society. We are told our flaws, accused of having horrific shortcomings, and, in far too many cases, we have taken those criticisms in and and accepted ownership of them. Like other things repeated so often they are deemed truths, we fall into the trap of unwarranted familiarity. (Say it often enough and it’s got to be true!) And not wanting to be demonized for not believing these purported truths, we facilitate a sort of self-fulfilling prophesy. By failing to dispute, by default, we absorb the nudges to accept until we forget we object and were nudged, and we neglect to question the validity of these “truths.”
I really wish we wouldn’t take that bait and fall into that trap. Just because something is repeated often as fact doesn’t make it fact. Truth is what makes something true, just as, whether or not we see or accept it, a lie is and will always be a lie.
In observing the character—the innate character—of people and the way they acted that day (versus what was said, which is far less reliable), I concluded that we have allowed others to define us and we’ve allowed their definitions to become the way we see ourselves.
We’ve been wrong.
I’ve never claimed to be politically correct, and I’m not going to be now. That nonsense is highly overrated and it creates falsehoods that create huge challenges, like the death of our collective identity. I was taught from the cradle that everything deserves respect. It’s due, given, and an individual’s to lose. I’m keeping that and I’m opting for truth. That’s where we get what we need to define character for ourselves and about ourselves.
The truth is this: we’re a messy nation with a lot of problems—just like every other society of people in every other nation. We’ve got our challenges and those among us who are shady and doing bad things for bad reasons, to be sure. But largely, we are good people with good hearts who try to do what we feel is good and right because it is good and right. We’re compassionate, we have integrity, and we love our not only our God, country, families and pets. We love our neighbors, our history and our traditions. We tend to forget but there is a lot of goodness in us all.
Okay, so sometimes we have to look hard to find it, but that’s the exception and not the rule, and we’re smart enough to know there is good and bad in each of us and that which we condone, we own. If we permit the bad to flourish, it will. If we nurture the good and encourage it, it will flourish. What flourishes is up to us. Not anyone else. Us. Each of us chooses and decides for ourselves. We control the type of people we are and the type of people we become.
They say to measure the character of a person you should do two things:
- Ignore what s/he says and watch what s/he does.
- Observe that person when s/he is experiencing things at the worst and at the best.
There’s wisdom in both. Words are cheap. They flow fluently, are manipulated, used both to heal and to destroy. We know the power of words, but we also know that they can be spun and twisted for good or ill purpose. By those with good and bad intentions and hearts.
Actions are more honest. Actions reveal a person’s unfiltered thoughts. The thoughts only uttered inside the mind because to speak them aloud well might illicit an unfavorable response. We temper our words to gain desired reactions. We might measure our actions, but they are more consistent with our unfiltered thoughts. The thoughts acted upon reveal the character of the human being.
One might bluster, might claim x or y, but if one’s actions are z, then z reveals the core character of the person. That’s important to remember in writing and crafting characters, but it’s even more important in understanding others in relationships in life.
When someone is besieged with the worst—under extreme duress—his/her soft underbelly is exposed. We see what most matters by his/her reaction to his/her circumstances. We see what s/he most values, most respects, most fears, and what s/he holds in high regard and no regard. We also see by what is done or not done, what s/he believes matters most and how much it matters to him/her; specifically by the emphasis on it in his/her actions. We see that person’s truth.
Sometimes we won’t like what we see. But sometimes we’ll be amazed at the heroes inside “ordinary” people that we had no idea existed. We’ll have the privilege of seeing the average man in the street rise to reveal an admirable, extraordinary human being. Someone we neglected to really see, we come to respect and hold in high esteem, hope that, if we were in their position, we would emulate them.
But it isn’t just in the hardest times that character is revealed. It’s in the best of times, too. How a winner wins matters—and reveals character. A gloating winner isn’t seen as a winner. S/he is seen as arrogant. One who reacts to an honor as entitled and his/her right doesn’t inspire or encourage but alienates. Comes across as a narcissist, selfish and self-centered or self-serving, revealing a lack of or absence of character. Conversely, we embrace gracious winners. We respect gratitude.
How we react, what we do when we think no one is watching or when no one is watching, reveals character. Not what we say but what we think, what criteria we use to define good, our ability to look the truth in the eye and not color it to suit our preferences, not to rationalize it to be what we wish it were, or to slip on rose-colored glasses because, if we see the truth, we’re put in the uncomfortable position of having to do something about it. Most actions, private or public, are all driven by character.
So this post 9/11 morning, I’m thinking. A lot. And what I’m thinking is that we’ve allowed others to define us long enough. We need to remember who we are collectively and individually, and to embrace it.
We have victims. But we are not victims; or so simply defined. We are people of character. People who know what most matters. People who define themselves by their actions and are wise enough to judge the value of others and what they say by what they do.
We remember our past and embrace our future. Is that always easy? No. But it is always wise. When we stop permitting others to muddle our minds, filling it with their subjective opinions of who we are, and we nix their version of us and define ourselves, remembering our pasts and embracing our futures will get easier. We’ll be doing so from a firm foundation and a long history of people of character. Not ones who never erred, but ones who learned from their mistakes and tried to do better and to be better. That’s substantial for real people not living in fantasyland.
What I’m carrying with me this morning is renewed hope. When the need arose, so many people of character stepped forward. Their spirits shone. And inspired. And these thirteen years later, living or dead, they continue to inspire.
That’s why we need to remember. Days of national service are good and fine. But remembering significant events that are our history is incredibly important and valuable on its own. One should not replace the other. For if we fail to retain our identity, we will lose it. And in doing so, we lose ourselves.
That truth is character revealed…