One of my dearest friends texted me today to say she was thinking of her loved ones, especially her NYC friends, on this important day. I was shocked to realize I had completely forgotten that today was 9/11. At first I was wracked with guilt for so easily forgetting this somber anniversary honoring the thousands of people who lost their lives due to four brutal terrorist attacks. Then, for a brief moment, I thought, “Maybe it’s a good sign that I can look at today like any other day. Maybe that means we’re healing.” Seconds later, my guilt resurged for trying to rationalize my forgetfulness. Then I recalled a conversation I had the privilege of listening to just the day before about how people’s reactions to disasters depend upon proximity. (Interestingly, this conversation certainly included references to 9/11, and yet I was still completely oblivious to the fact that the anniversary was happening less than 24 hours later.) Proximity can mean many things. We can talk about proximity in terms of physical distance, chronological distance, or, probably most importantly, emotional/personal distance. A psychologist could probably have a heyday analyzing my ability to emotionally distance myself when it comes to traumatizing situations in real life and yet still manage to cry like a baby every time I watch an episode of Parenthood. But I think this idea of proximity kind of zeroes in on my own reaction (or lack thereof) to this day of remembrance.
The idea of proximity and how it affects our reactions to disasters or emergencies is fairly common sense, but I’ve never sat down and really thought about it before. It is a possible explanation as to why most people can walk by someone collapsed on the street and crying and callously ignore their cries for help. Our emotional proximity to that stranger is quite distant. If you knew that person, you would absolutely reach out to help; otherwise, it’s too easy to wall off any emotional attachment to someone with whom you have no relation. This walling off can actually be a healthy defense mechanism that has become quite necessary in our current Information Age. Our 24-hour news cycle constantly bombards us with unending disasters, conflicts, and tragedies occurring all around the world. If we were to emotionally invest ourselves into every single one of these issues, we would all be on the brink of suicide every day of our lives.
However, when we distance ourselves from anyone except those whom we see on a daily basis, it becomes easy to forget that caring for others, even strangers, is partly why we thrive as a species. And let’s not forget that, while it’s so easy to wipe our brows and sigh, “Thank god that wasn’t my home,” when we see disaster strike a distant city, we are all just one tornado, hurricane, earthquake, tsunami, nuclear meltdown, terrorist attack, or any number of tragedies away from needing to rely on the kindness of strangers. So I believe it is important to understand this concept of proximity, particularly emotional proximity, in order to realize when our personal walls are a little too thick and we need to reach out and connect to the rest of humanity again.
With this in mind, I have been taking the time to analyze my own levels of proximity to 9/11 to better understand why I forgot this monumental day. I moved to New York in January of 1997 and had been a permanent resident of this amazing city for almost four years when the planes hit the World Trade Center on 9/11/2001. While many born-and-bred New Yorkers would probably scoff, I certainly considered myself a member of the tribe by that time. In that sense, my proximity to the disaster was quite close. However, on that particular day, I happened to be performing in a production of Gypsy in St. Louis, Missouri, and I wouldn’t be back in New York until late November, once the run of the show was completed. So my physical proximity was actually very distant. I did not have the horrible experience of witnessing the explosions first hand as some of my closest friends did. I did not have to run through streets choked with roiling clouds of dust and debris, terrified that I could die at any moment from another unknown attack. Instead, like most of the world, I was watching it all on television, which gave the eerie impression that this was all just some Hollywood publicity stunt for a new Arnold Schwarzenegger movie.
Emotionally speaking, my proximity, once again, was fairly distant. I did not personally know anyone who was killed during the events of 9/11. I am so incredibly grateful this was the case. I’m sure not one single person who lost a loved one that Tuesday will ever have my experience of forgetting what an important day this is. My fortune of not losing anyone during the attacks has allowed me to slip into that mindset of “It didn’t directly affect me, so I don’t need to pay too much attention to it.” I know I’m not alone in this emotional distancing.
I am writing down all of these rambling thoughts partly to rationalize this morning’s egregious lapse of memory. While I’m not flogging myself for this transgression, I do acknowledge that today is a very important day for remembering the thousands of men and women who lost their lives thirteen years ago. It is also an opportunity to reflect on how disasters can occur anywhere at anytime no matter how “developed” your nation may be, no matter how robust your GDP may be, no matter how much political power you may hold throughout the world. It is for this reason that we all need to find ways to reach out, however that may be, to our fellow humans when they are suffering from any number of crises occurring around the world. While I still feel some guilt over today’s forgetfulness, I believe this period of reflection has helped me grow just a little and has inspired me to reconnect to my own human spirit by emphasizing the importance of staying connected to others.