Beyond 9-11. How I Used This Time of National and Personal Grief for Personal Growth.
It was a time of turmoil for our country and for me, personally.
I stood and stared out at the quiet, empty runways of Logan Airport. The harbor was flat and calm, the ebbing tide reflecting the gray sky. On occasion, an F-14 patrolling closed U.S. airspace broke the silence with a roar and then a whip-like retreat. In the background, my 14 year-old son smashed his fists against a speed bag in rebellion.
The space between these sounds was the silence of a grave.
I couldn’t decide where the greatest tragedy lay, in front of me or behind me.
In front of me, two planes had departed that morning and never reached their destinations. That morning, 145 people had left their homes for the last time. Another 2,977 were killed in the Twin Towers. Their families and friends would never see them again. And there was nothing to bury.
American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the North Tower of 1 World Trade Center (1 WTC) and United Flight 175 crashed into the south face of the South Tower (2 WTC). These great towers were now piles of bent, steaming, rubble.
The date: September 11, 2001.
The country cried out in grief, survivors moaned and the screams of the dead echoed from sea to shining sea. I mourned their loss and suffering, and though insignificant in comparison, mine occupied my body in dread, shaking in fear.
It was a double whammy.
“If you love someone, set them free.” — Anon.
There’s a saying, “if you love someone, set them free.” My child wanted to be set free, from me anyway, to go live with his father. Though I had refused at first, I knew I could not force him to stay.
His adolescence was challenging and he didn’t like my rules and restrictions. And I didn’t like his friends. He rebelled and I laid down the law, it was, “My way or the highway.”
He chose the highway.
Ok, so in a sense I was getting what I’d asked for. When someone wants to end a relationship, even if it is a child, you have no choice but to let them go.
I walked him out the front door, watched him pack his stuff into his father’s truck, hugged him good-by, then stoically went inside shutting the front door behind me and shook and wept.
I wept for myself, but again felt the grief of the dead victims of 9-11 and everyone they’d left behind.
The past crashed down and covered me like an avalanche in debris that had been buried away for years. The world was just shi***ing on me and my country, or so I thought. I stood at the edge of this cruel universe shaking my fist, choking on my past, and dreading the future.
Who was I now?
For three months I did little but go to work and sequester myself in my room. On weekends, I had an all-out pity party. I organized it and was the guest of honor, plying myself with junk food, sad movies and as much white wine as I could consume and still remain conscious.
Monday mornings the party ended. I would unfurl my body from its fetal position around my pillow and thrust myself onto my feet, dehydrated and bedraggled like something the cat dragged in, as my mother used to say.
Yes, I was in hell’s fires.
Fire burns, but fire purifies. It separates the gold from the ore, but until it solidifies, it’s a runny, messy, shapeless blob. Time has a way of healing all, and slowly it solidified into a recognizable shape.
But I didn’t recover as much as I transformed.
Through a friend, I was introduced to the teachings of Vietnamese Buddhist monk and master teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, in particular, his teachings on impermanence or anicca. Its teaching is that our greatest suffering comes from our inability to accept the change this impermanence creates.
We hold on. We expect certain outcomes. When these outcomes are not realized, we experience suffering.
But, we can eliminate a good deal of suffering if we are willing to go forward and accept this impermanence. Thich Nhat Hanh also noted that in the West, it’s not a philosophy we’re familiar with, though with practice anyone can obtain its benefits.
This was where I was. Ready and willing.
I learned that all life is in a constant state of transformation and nothing is the same one moment to the next. Every living thing is in this stage of flux. Transformation is a state of impermanence, but not an end. Impermanence leads to change and we cannot escape it.
This new philosophy made perfect sense to me. I had cried out in pain, the victim in my “poor me” drama, attached to what I had wanted and expected. I now looked at the situation with new eyes, a different perspective. A new chapter, an opportunity, had opened up in my life and the one of a full-time mother was over.
I felt the common bond of suffering that we all share.
My suffering was no greater than anyone else’s. In fact, many had, and were at that moment, suffering more.
Thousands, especially in New York City, where the clean-up was underway, were in agony. My son’s departure was a change, but it did not have the bitter finality of death.
If they could move on with their lives, so could I.
Where was it written that I should be a full-time mother until my son reached adulthood? How many mothers had buried their young children due to sickness, violence, war? And my son was alive.
I decided to turn and go with the current instead of against it.
This is not to say you should accept abuse or mistreatment, not fight against injustices or remain passive and content in the face of injustice or evil. It means you choose your battles. In everyday life, going with the flow often requires less energy and creates less drama than fighting.
My friend also escorted me to Spiritualist church where I learned a lesson in keeping with this Buddhist philosophy: experiences are not good or bad, they are lessons. It’s what you learn from them and do with your new found knowledge that creates their nature.
Do you deal with what you’ve been given?
Do you take what’s in front of you, even if it’s not what you wanted, work with it or do you resist?
Simply put, “If the world gives you lemons, make lemonade.”
We do need to make plans and follow through. Otherwise, we have anarchy and can accomplish nothing. But don’t write your expectations in stone. Do your best and keep your heart open to the experience and whatever comes out of it. Because that outcome is perfect, and as I learned, it is meant to be.
I am a now yoga instructor, medium, grandmother and a writer once more. I am blessed to have a wonderful family, friends, and be a part of a community that welcomes everyone who finds their way to its doors, even the weird and annoying.
My new philosophy and beliefs have also helped me develop tolerance and a better sense of humor.
Had things gone as I planned and my son not left, I wouldn’t be where I am now, physically, spiritually, or emotionally.
Let the journey be your goal. Because in the end the journey is the goal. And every experience you have along the way determines it.
It’s all happening now.