Learning from tragedy

A single rose marks a name on the north pool memorial at the site of the World Trade Center in New York City.

Almost 20 years ago I entered my first year of college at Western Oregon University. I arrived on campus before most other students to play football. The team was staying in temporary dorms and I woke up before my roommates early on a Tuesday morning.

Not used to the heat of the Willamette Valley, I left our poorly ventilated room and went downstairs, across the courtyard to the lobby. It was less of a lobby and more of a crude basement featuring a pool table with no balls or cues and a ping pong table that was predominantly used for other activities. The lobby also contained the only television that I had access to.

There was a woman, employed by the university for this thankless job, cleaning the space that morning but there wasn’t much cleaning going on when I entered the room. She stood, vacuum cord in hand with her eyes glued on the television.

I looked but my eyes couldn’t move either. We were watching the attacks on the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon unfold on live television.

I sat and didn’t move for some time. We didn’t exchange a word. She eventually received a call and left. The vacuum stayed, a remnant of the effects of that morning despite the nearly 3,000 miles that separated Monmouth and New York City.

For me, it was probably the most culturally significant event that had happened in my lifetime and I, like most of you, will never forget what it felt like to learn of the tragedy and calamity that accompanied the events of that day.

I’m almost sorry to say that my life didn’t change too much after Sept. 11. The football team was displaced for the upcoming weekend’s game. Flight and travel restrictions were imposed in the name of safety. There were political consequences, financial implications, wars, and additional loss of life assuredly, but my little world was far removed from it all.

On March 11, when this all started to quickly unfold, it hit our community — it hit our world — not with the suddenness of Sept. 11. It was more like a landslide. A landslide that steadily cascaded down a mountainside to an innocent village. As the landslide drew closer the carnage that it wrecked became more evident. Trees were uprooted, houses were demolished, and lives ruined. Different than the events of that warm September morning, this pandemic’s reach has left no stone unturned, even in our little blessed corner.

Against anyone’s wishes, it seems that we’re in the midst of another quite memorable episode in the history of our world and unfortunately the upheaval, despite being eight weeks in, is still manifesting itself. Lives have been altered and in many parts of the world, casualties have occurred. Businesses and commerce have been abruptly halted. Mental and physical wellness are undeniably suffering. Although not scientifically based, people seem to be on the edge of their last bit of practicing kindness.

When I look back on the events of that morning when I was just a dumb 18-year-old kid, I remember the heroes. The fire fighters and police officers who responded. The families who showed resilience despite loss of a loved one. The leadership of those who guided others out of the towers despite tremendous obstacles. The collective resolve of a city.

When we look back on this experience, and we will, what will we remember?

I’ll remember the significant efforts of nurses and doctors to care for the sick amid this crisis. I’ll remember the hard work of first responders and essential businesses that continued making sure we all had food, water and medicine. I’ll likely tear up knowing how precious the time has been that I’ve had to watch my children learn and how grateful I was for the tireless work of teachers.

So, I come to you with a plea, a simple request. This situation is awful, no one is denying that. But did the virtues of kindness, empathy and respect terminate when this pandemic began?

With so much to do to restore business, our community and our way of life, let’s spend our energy on restoration and hope. Let’s be kind, let’s be respectful. Let’s work to be gracious and be full of empathy. Let’s get through this together. Let’s be a hero. Let’s be memorable, for the right reasons.

Stay safe everyone.

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