The great writer of the Jonathan Livingston Seagull books, Richard Bach, wrote that inside every problem, there is a gift for you.
The same holds true for tragedies.
As hard as it is to imagine, there are gifts to be found behind our pain and loss and tears.
Those hidden gifts are what helps us get through these situations and go on another day.
The September 11 terrorist attacks left behind the greatest of pain, the greatest of losses.
Innocent people lost their lives by simply taking a plane ride that day. Heroes like firefighters and police and rescue workers made the ultimate sacrifice, many of them by running into the buildings to help people that day, and many others who died years later after suffering from debilitating illnesses from breathing in the smoke and dust.
Lives were torn apart forever, and the pain these people suffered was unimaginable and permanent.
Those of us not directly affected also suffered, though not in the same way.
When the planes did their damage that day, we all lost something, individually and as a nation.
We lost that sense of security and strength. We lost hope. The attacks exposed our collective vulnerability and eroded our faith in our government institutions to protect us.
In the initial days and weeks after the attack, the collective experience seemed to unite us.
Who could forget the feeling of seeing American flags everywhere, in the windows of houses, on lawns and street corners?
But the experience also divided us in many ways. It made us more suspicious and untrusting.
For Muslim Americans, just like Japanese Americans in the U.S. during World War II, the tragedy made them targets of bigotry, scapegoats for the acts of a few extremist murderers.
The spirit of unity and nationalism we gained by viewing ourselves as victims exposed biases and provided a breeding ground for hatred and discrimination that still exists.
Our government also didn’t always shine in the aftermath.
Some used the tragedy as an opportunity to deprive citizens of their civil protections in the name of national security and as justification for military engagements that in hindsight were oversold.
So what about those gifts every tragedy is supposed to hold for us?
They were there, too.
When we’re forced to see the flaws, in our nation, ourselves and in others, it can inspire us to challenge the status quo and demand changes.
While the tragedy exposed our biases, it also compelled people to speak out against them.
Many of us found compassion in the losses of others and found ways to help. Any many of us found ways to pass that compassion and collective purpose to our children.
How many times have we seen during the covid pandemic acts of selflessness like we’d never seen before?
People in the medical community working endless hours treating patients.
Adults and children setting up food drives and clothing drives and donating money and time to help people suffering from the economic consequences of the pandemic.
People voluntarily inconveniencing themselves not just to protect themselves from harm, but others.
That ability to put aside our fears, our differences and our inherent self interests to assist others in need is one of the legacies of September 11. It’s one of the gifts.
As we mark the 20th anniversary of this terrible tragedy today, take some time to think about how you felt in the immediate aftermath, and how your thoughts and feelings have evolved since then.
How you might have grown as a person. How much of those lessons you passed on to your children or others.
What did it force you to see in yourself and in others and in our nation? What strengths and weaknesses did it reveal?
The events of September 11 could not in any way be described other than as a generation-defining tragedy.
Take some time today to reflect on the people who lost their lives and who lost loved ones. To imagine their pain and suffering and loss.
But also reflect on the impact it had on the country and on us as individuals.
Inside every problem is a gift for you.
Seek out that gift from the horrors of September 11, and honor the memory of the victims by sharing that gift with others.