Though the memory of that tower falling – metal screeching, plumes of smoke billowing, flames gripping the sky – will never escape my memory, I have to say that on Tuesday, September 11th, 2001, what stands out wasn’t the sight of ordinary citizens jumping from a skyscraper or even the screams to run, fast, and not look back. It was my astonishment at what people became in a time of crisis: themselves.
It was on that day that my seven-year-old self first glimpsed the true faces of people I had known all my life, and also people I had not. Those faces, hidden underneath façades from day-to-day, come out when others are in need. Some are ugly and dark – I watched a man fall and be trampled by others running carelessly and blind with fear. But more often, kindness and remarkable self-sacrifice win over any doubts – that is who most of us really are.
It is troubling that it takes a disaster for ordinary citizens to become extraordinary, but it isn’t just the disaster: it’s the power of choice that comes with it. Even Abraham Lincoln, living over a hundred years ago, had to say, “…if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” What one chooses to do with this power is almost irrelevant; it is what he or she does that shows what they are in their heart of hearts.
But I will remember that when I fell – knees bloodied and eyes wide-open at the scene we had fled – there was always someone there to help pull me back up again. I will remember the countless firefighters and police officers that walked into the towers knowing that they might never walk out… but didn’t even flinch because there were lives to be saved. I will not forget the passengers of United 93, people who had been like you and me, who showed themselves to be heroes in the face of a catastrophe and prevented the deaths of others at the price of their own.
These people had it in them all along; it just took a situation to bring out selflessness. So now I try a little harder and be a little kinder – smile to a stranger on the street, perhaps. Because though I may believe a crisis shows a person’s true self, why should I have to wait? I’m ready to show who I am now.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.