Monday, September 12, 2016

Why 9/11 Makes Me Feel Guilty

One World Trade Center and The Oculus

I posted a 9/11 remembrance Instagram for about thirty seconds yesterday. It was the photo above with a long caption about where I was during that day and how much the world changed and how we're all so strong. I regretted it almost the very second I posted it. So, I edited it. And I edited it about three times more. It still didn't feel right. So, finally, I just deleted it. 

You see, I struggle with posting about 9/11. Writing or even talking about it never fails to make me feel guilty. I just don't feel like I should write about it--like it's not my story to tell. In the 15 years since that morning, I have met people who lost husbands and fathers in the towers. I have known people who were separated from their children for hours on that day, unable to find out if they were okay. I have become good friends with a woman who was in one of the towers. (And, clearly, got out.) 

So, when it comes to expressing my feelings about 9/11, I always feel that I just don't have the right. What do I have to complain about? I was literally on the other side of the country that day. Was I scared? Yes. Terrified. But my experience is just so insignificant in the scale of tragedy that happened that day. Who am I to claim it even for a moment?

In New York, if you're at a party or a dinner, or hanging out with anyone long enough, the chances are decent that talk turns to where you were on September 11th. (Does this happen elsewhere in the country, too? I'm genuinely curious.) In New York, of course, most people you encounter around my age were here for it. And if they didn't have a direct connection (and many do), they at least remember somehow experiencing it firsthand, whether it was seeing smoke when they exited the subway, walking thirty, forty, or more blocks home, evacuating their Lower Manhattan apartment, or seeing flyers of missing faces all around them for weeks to come.

I experienced none of that. Though I am in New York now, at the time, I lived in Los Angeles. So, on the morning of 9/11, thanks to the three-hour time difference, I was asleep. (I later asked my mother why she hadn't called to wake me up, and she said that she wanted me to have one more morning of peaceful sleep. Moms.)

So, that morning, I woke up a little after 7 a.m. (10 a.m. east coast time). I switched on the TV, didn't even glance at it, and hopped in the shower to get ready for work. When I got out, I saw the massive cloud of smoke engulfing Lower Manhattan, turned up the volume and tried to comprehend what I was seeing. I thought the world was ending.

I called a friend who lived in my apartment complex and screamed: "What is happening??" We spent the rest of the day on her couch trying to make sense of what we were seeing on TV. I don't remember crying; I just remember feeling utterly in shock. 

Later that day, when I was finally able to get in touch with my parents, I remember asking my mom: "Are things ever going to feel normal again?" She said she didn't know. I appreciated the honesty. Because it really didn't seem possible at the time.

I thankfully didn't mourn anyone that day. But I did feel a type of loss. There was a heavy sense that the world had changed and that our lives would never be the same again. Would things like this just keep happening? Would there ever be a time when we weren't scared anymore? Would we feel happy again?

But, as everyone knows, eventually things did get better. That day, I had sworn I would never get on a plane again. But, two months later, I did. I would be leaving soon to go to grad school to study magazine journalism, but now I sure as hell planned to find a job in California after that; there was no way I'd move to New York--the epicenter of magazine jobs. But two years later, I did. And, in what would perhaps have been the biggest surprise that that scared girl of September 2001 could never have imagined: 13 years later, I walked into my first day of work at a job in the new World Trade Center. (Truth be told, I was never thrilled about working in that building. But I did it.) For me, my world went on.

So that's my story. If you can even call it a story. It still feels like nothing. But I wonder if there are other people out there with "nothing" stories who feel the same sense of guilt. Because, what I'm slowly, finally starting to realize is that, while there may be vastly different degrees of experience, that doesn't mean something wasn't experienced. My "experience" was tiny. And ultimately lucky. And it had a happy ending. But it was emotional, it was impactful, it was terrifying in its own way, and it was mine. For those of us who were fortunate enough not to lose anyone on September 11th, it doesn't mean we didn't lose anything. 

And, I guess, that's something.

--

Phew. So, I still feel kind of icky about talking about this, but I am so curious if anyone else feels similarly, so I decided to put it all out there. If you had a similar experience on September 11th--that is, no direct experience, at all--do you feel the same sort of guilty feeling?

And if you did lose someone, please know that I know that my experience is nothing compared to yours--and that my thoughts are always with you.

Talk to me, people. 

3 comments:

Sandra Bond said...

I relate to your story a little bit. I never know what to say or how to feel about 9/11... I had just arrived two days prior as an exchange student from Germany when 9/11 happened. I was also on the West Coast in an apartment with no TV (and smartphones were not yet an extension to everyone's arm), so I didn't find out about what happened until hours later when I happened to check my email at a public computer at a 'newsstand'.
I was shocked, of course, but I had not personal connection to NYC (I had only visited once in 2000) and didn't know anybody who lived there. It all felt a little surreal. I remember the only thing I was thinking was that I was so glad that I had arrived for my stay abroad before it happened, because otherwise I think I wouldn't have come (which makes me wonder sometimes what my life would look like today, given that I stayed in the US permanently).
All this to say, I think we all have valid experiences that surround 9/11, but yeah, we were the lucky ones.

Meet the Magnolias said...

This is beautiful, and tactful, and honest.

Amber Witham Ward said...

I was there on NYC...I watched it happen as I was heading downtown. I have forever pictures in my head that shall never forget...and yet I never photographed one single picture while I was there....I couldn't for a the respect of the people.

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