We gather on this 10th anniversary of 9/11 as a people of prayer, praying for the survivors and those who lost loved ones as they continue to seek healing for their loss, praying for those in our armed forces who have died since then in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other lands, praying that God will comfort their families as they mourn, and let us not forget their sacrifice, praying that God will continue to guide our nation as we confront our vulnerability, and the changes we have seen in our lives.
Newsweek has a series of articles written about various reactions people have had to this tragic event, and one word stands out above the others again and again- resilience. CNN/Time has produced a program entitled, “Portraits of Resilience” that honors the many heroes of the tragedy. Resilience describes the nature of the reaction to 9/11. That day may have shocked us, but resilience shapes us.
What is resilience? Resilience is the ability to work with adversity in such a way that one comes through it unharmed or even better for the experience. Resilience means facing life’s difficulties with courage and patience – refusing to give up. It is the quality of character that allows a person or group of people to rebound from misfortune, hardships and traumas. Resilience is rooted in a tenacity of spirit—a determination to embrace all that makes life worth living even in the face of overwhelming odds. When we have a clear sense of identity and purpose, we are more resilient, because we can hold fast to our vision of a better future. Much of our resilience comes from community—from the relationships that allow us to lean on each other for support when we need it.
I consider the Bible the handbook of resilience. Jesus said in John 16:33, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” Or Romans 8:35.37: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? ….No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” Ephesians 6 includes these words: “Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm!”
Job, Daniel, Joseph, and Esther are examples of Biblical figures who exude resilience. Job’s whole world had turned upside down but he showed resilience by praying, “Lord, now I know you can do all things and no purpose of yours can be thwarted.” (Job 42:1,2) The most inspirational story of resilience is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus was the embodiment of a resilient life.
What is a resilient life? It is bouncing back like a rubber band that has been stretched. The American life has a collective resilience that binds it together. America has learned to be resilient,
and world leaders recognize this trait as part of being American. After 9/11, the Dalai Lama stated, “I am confident that the United States as a great and powerful nation will be able to overcome this present tragedy. The American people have shown their resilience, courage and determination when faced with such difficult and sad situations.” It could be that he was referring to resilience following the catastrophic events of our nation’s history, like the Great Depression, the attack on Pearl Harbor, the race riots of 1967, the assassinations of President Kennedy in 1962, of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy in 1968, and the shooting of the students at Kent State University by National Guard Troops in 1970.
Corporations can have pockets of resilience, such as Illinois Bell following the breakup of AT&T. The company downsized from 26,000 to 14,000 jobs. Two thirds of the executives were suffering from severe stress-related illnesses, such as ulcers, migraine headaches, anxiety attacks, depression, alcoholism, tantrums, and even a few suicides. They felt worried and fearful with low energy, a high rate of absenteeism, and poor performance reviews. One third, however, seemed fulfilled. It was as if an emotional commitment had been made to accept the challenge of the breakup, a commitment that made their attitudes so resilient to the change.
A resilient spirit can overcome great odds. The Los Angeles Times reported that “the honor of carrying the U.S. flag into Olympic Stadium Friday in the opening ceremony of the 2000 Games was not going to go to Marion Jones, Michael Johnson or Vince Carter. It is a distinction that belongs more and more not to the most celebrated of the U.S. athletes, but to someone whose story stirs the competitors who march behind. By a vote of the team captains from each sport Wednesday night, the U.S. team chose kayaker Cliff Meidl of Hawthorne, competing in his second Olympics 14 years after he was nearly killed in a construction accident that sent 30,000 volts coursing through his body and left him with devastating injuries. “It’s the ultimate for me,” said Meidl, 34, who works as a financial analyst in El Monte and trains at Newport Aquatic Center in Newport Beach. “I’ve seen flag bearers before. I had no idea it would ever be me.” Debilitated by the burns and serious leg injuries he suffered in a 1986 accident when the jackhammer he was operating struck three unmarked high-voltage cables, Meidl took up canoeing and later kayaking as rehabilitation for a body no longer able to run or play soccer. Friday, a man whose heart stopped three times after the accident will lead some of the strongest hearts on earth. “It’s a message, of course, of courage and the indomitable spirit of human beings,” said Anita DeFrantz, an IOC vice president and 1976 bronze medalist in rowing. “He’s not only carrying the flag, he’s carrying the hopes of everyone–not just in the stadium and around the track, but through the competition and onto the medal stand.”
The Biblical figures and this Olympian share the same resilient traits. The most prominent might be what Harvard Business Review’s Diane Coutu calls the acceptance of reality. Being able to accept the new situation is the first step in dealing with it. Sometimes we tend to rationalize or deny what has happened. When we do that we cannot stop the downward spiral. We all know the serenity prayer: “God, Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Knowing the difference doesn’t mean having a pessimistic attitude. A positive attitude can still exist, but it must be an attitude that confronts the new reality head on. Have you ever heard that sailing quote by William Arthur Ward? “The pessimist complains about the wind, the optimist expects it to change, the realist adjusts the sails.”
Being resilient means taking intentional, incremental steps. Remember our Olympian kayaker? He was chosen to carry the American flag into the Olympic stadium. Usually this honor is given to a
gold medal star, but he was chosen because his resilient spirit lifted the American Olympians. As he walked into the stadium on those repaired legs, he walked slowly. His steps were very small, but he led the American athletes with courage on that day. Maybe you can’t take a big step. These little steps are what it takes. A key ingredient in recovery was an ability to stick to a routine and exert control where you can. Doing this restores belief in predictability and safety.
Another trait of resilient thinking is to be connected to others. Remember the way people, not just in America but around the world, helped each other after 9/11? People were holding doors for each other, letting cars cut in front of them, just being kind. It’s well known that social support reduces the psychological distress following trauma. In her book, Trauma and Recovery, renowned trauma expert Dr. Judith Herman stated that people bounce back more quickly from trauma when they use their connections with others as a way to cope with the experience. She cited examples of people who were willing to talk openly with their friends or relatives about their feelings, and the more they talked, the better they felt. This helps people bounce back from events that threaten to stop them in their tracks. Less resilient people have a harder time sharing their experiences with others, sometimes because they lack the intimate connections such openness requires, or because they’re less comfortable with their emotions and feel embarrassed to discuss their reactions. A lack of connection to others hinders recovery, resilience keeps you connected, connection helps you heal and you are better prepared for whatever happens next. When you face reality you move forward with something you have learned. You have a lesson you can use to rebuild.
The resilience of 9/11 contains many stories of connection. In 2002, one story of irony was a Jewish woman, Phyllis Rodriguez, and a Muslim woman, Aicha el Wafi, both mothers. The Jewish mother lost her son in 9/11, and the Muslim mother’s son was convicted and given a life sentence for his role in 9/11. When these two met, they fell into each other’s arms and shared their emotions. Eventually they began to appear together in front of groups, inspiring everyone who sees them with a message of how friendship can repair a broken world.
There were many stories this past week of the heroism in response to 9/11. I read one about Rev. Andrea Raynor, one of the chaplains who was stationed at the morgue for eight months following the attack. As recovery workers sifted through debris and looked for the remains of almost 3,000 persons who died in the World Trade Center, she waited for the delivery of the body bags every day. She gave blessings to the deceased, and everyone who listened felt profound reverence. At each prayer, there was a pause, the hard hats would come off and silence would prevail. Her prayers and blessings were simple: “We didn’t know if the person was Jewish or Christian or Buddhist or Muslim. I asked for the spirit of that person to find comfort, for their family to find strength, and I asked for strength of the workers who were working so tirelessly each day.”
We remember the sense of unity in America after 9/11, and that signifies to me that love is stronger than hate. There was such a sense of peace in America that some commentators stated that the hyphen dropped away and we were all Americans. No African-Americans, Italian-Americans, Irish-Americans, Asian-Americans, we were Americans plain and simple united. The anniversary of 9/11 remembers a tragedy but also how resilient America can be. We don’t always get to choose what happens in our lives, and we will always be vulnerable to evil one way or another, but evil will not prevail. Love is what truly shapes us.
In 1865, President Lincoln said, “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the
nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
What can we do in response to such a tragedy? Even ten years later the lesson is the same. With a spirit of resilience, let us bounce back like a rubber band, accept the reality that this happened, and move forward with slow, deliberate steps, toward new connections of healing and God’s peace. Amen.