Fearing death and facing death on September 11, 2001

On the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, tributes and remembrances abound, as they should. We learn by remembering. And we honor the fallen.

Every New Yorker has a story to tell about that day. My wife and I had just flown back home on September 10th and had admired the majestic towers on the drive into Manhattan. The thought that those twin icons would vanish 24 hours later was unimaginable.

On that crisp morning, we woke up and began preparing business documents we were delivering to our accountant, whose office was in World Trade Center building 7. We planned to train it down to Chambers from the Upper West Side, stroll down and arrive around 9 am. A couple of minutes before we left, a family member called and told us to turn on the television. We did. Our lives changed forever, as did the lives of everyone around us. [Afterwards, we purposely moved down to lower Manhattan, making Battery Park City our home, surrounded by the echo of heroes and the spirit of those who gave their lives on that life-changing day. And we still have the package addressed to a building that no longer exists.]

I’d spent years in Beirut during the worst days of the Lebanese civil war. Bloodshed and terror, bombs and bodies were the norm for me, not the exception. Once I escaped the war in Lebanon, I never thought the carnage would follow me to New York City. It did. In a terrible way. Of the friends and acquaintances I lost in the towers, I’ll never forget the awful irony of Paul Skrzypek, who I played hoops with at our local gym. Paul started work at Cantor Fitzgerald just weeks before the attacks. We all really do have a date with death.

How we face death is how we live life. We’re born to fear it, programmed to survive. The wonder of existence is that we can override our programming and confront death fearlessly. The real story of September 11th is the story of how individuals confronted their own death, from the twisted, murderous bravado of the hijackers, willingly slamming themselves into buildings, to the unspeakable bravery of first responders climbing up to oblivion to save others. Not to mention those beautiful souls who swan-dived off the towers, the courageous passengers on Flight 93 and the countless unspoken heroes who gave their lives without hesitation to preserve the lives of friends, co-workers and yes, strangers.

Most of all, we see ourselves in the victims of that tragedy – we wonder what the moment of our demise will be like. How we’ll respond. What we’ll feel. What we won’t feel.

Death is the engine of life; the awareness of our limits is what drives us to exceed those limits. Much as we crave immortality, the unspoken truth is that immortality in the form of endless human life would be the worst kind of hell. After thousands and millions of years of mundane life, all meaning would disappear, all pleasure would fade, all relationships would devolve, all bonds of love would lose their immediacy. Life would become an interminable shade of gray.

Unfortunately for us, oblivion is even scarier. What we really want is to shake the bonds of time, to be timeless. To exist, but to exist in an eternal present.

Either way, we are not fully alive until we have pondered the mystery of death, until we try to face life and death with courage and dignity. The encouraging and inspiring lesson from September 11, 2001 is that it is possible to do so.