You remember where you were.
You might not recall what you had for breakfast yesterday, but, if you are old enough, you remember where you were on that terrible Tuesday morning in September of 2001. You could tell anyone what you were doing and maybe even other important details that happened in the immediate aftermath. It’s been almost twenty years now… but you remember.
Something happens in our brains when we experience surprising, highly emotional or significant events. These are called flashbulb memories. The extreme emotion of those moments heavily influences the part of our brain responsible for encoding memories. Our minds record things in vivid detail as if it’s taking a picture of that exact moment in time.
I remember where I was. I was walking from my office in the church where I was serving at the time. I passed the kitchen where our chef was beginning preparations for the mid-week meal. “A plane has hit the World Trade Center,” she told me. I immediately rushed over to a friend’s house nearby, just in time to watch on tv as the second tower was hit. Then the reports came in about the Pentagon and we knew we were under a coordinated attack.
What an unsettling feeling. The grief over loss of life. The uncertainty of how it would all play out. Where would the attack come next? Will we be able to find the source and put a stop to it? Will we ever be safe again? The world had changed, and we knew it. I remember feeling so vulnerable, maybe for the first time in my life as an American.
But I remember something else about that time. People came together in a way I hadn’t seen in my lifetime. I remember a national grief that developed into a resolve and determination to make things right, to protect citizens, and to rebuild what was lost.
It was a reminder of something we too often forget. Some of the truest and most beautiful things about the human experience only emerge from the smoke and ashes of sorrow and tragedy. The diagnosis. The accident. The move. The change. The loss. None of us would choose these circumstances. But we’ve all experienced things—good things, God things—that we would never have tasted had we not traveled through the darkest of valleys.
I remember the summer of 2016. I was on a five-hour layover in Newark, New Jersey on the way to Hamburg, Germany for a mission trip. From the airport window, I looked across the Hudson River and I could see One World Trade Center far in the distance. It opened less than two years prior. I made a decision in that moment. I was going over to see it. It was a risk, but a calculated one. Barring any major shutdown of public transportation, I could make it there and back with a little time to spare.
After a series of trains, I made it to lower Manhattan. I remember rounding the corner and seeing One World Trade Center reaching into the blue New York sky. It was an astounding sight. I walked around the fountains marking the footings of the fallen Twin Towers. I ran my fingers along some of the names of the victims and noticed the single roses placed along the markers left by loved ones. It was a sobering visit.
But I’ve never felt so proud to be an American.
I celebrated my country that day with a giant slice of New York-style pizza and made my way back to the Newark airport. I arrived with forty-five minutes to spare!
Memory is a powerful thing, isn’t it?
On this day, September 11, 2020, may we remember those who lost their lives nineteen years ago. May we remember the way we felt that day and consider how fragile and extraordinary are the freedoms we enjoy. May we remember that, though it is far from perfect, we live in the greatest country in the world.
May we also remember that some good things—some God things—rise up only from the carnage of struggle and pain. May we remember our God is the originator of taking what was thought lost, and bringing it back to life.