I believe that nothing prepared Americans for the aftermath of September 11, 2001. What I find sadly ironic about these acts of terror is how they initially brought us out of our homes in support of out country as we attended prayer-vigils, candle-light ceremonies, memorial services, and shortly thereafter; and as tragic as the attack itself, we ended up back home and alone inside. After holding hands, singing anthems, and sharing tears with strangers from next door and the next town, we returned to what has become all-too-familiar in our lives. We closed ourselves off from the world outside and retreated to the comfort, safety and aloneness of our homes. Cut off from the open wound of September 11. It was a return to the predictable and secure life we had become accustomed to living. A life without the inclination to reach out and join others in a shared sense of community.
Growing up on a street in my upstate New York hometown, everyone knew everybody else and we were comfortable with the neighborly routines of a small town. People interacted and passed through each other’s lives with a facility that is foreign to us today. On September 11, I wished somebody had just stopped by. Years later I still yearn for that interaction.
I’m not sure when life changed. Maybe it happened when we all left our small hometowns for school and jobs in larger cities. Or maybe it was just the inevitable tug of a growing society that propelled us into situations that left the these easy rituals behind. No longer a familiar face in the crowd. No longer in a place where you can just stop by.
We’ve lost something very precious since this neighborly instinct left our lives. Unfortunately, we have become proficient at being alone and providing for ourselves, while at the same time losing touch with how and when we extend basic human kindnesses. Like many others of my generation, I have managed to build myself into a cocoon-like existence that leaves me feeling safe, but it also isolates me from the rest of my community. A situation I regret and continue to lament since 9/11.
It’s popular to acknowledge that September 11 changed lives in a profound way. Maybe that’s a good thing. What that day taught me is that I have this unquenchable desire to be a part of the greater whole. I need to feel that I matter and I want others to matter to me. I no longer want to look up from my couch across an empty living room, and wonder why there is nobody stopping by.
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