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A Year Like No Other (Revisited)

Dr. Sam Goldstein

I originally wrote and published this essay on the first anniversary of the destruction of the twin towers in New York City. On this the seventeenth anniversary of this tragedy I thought it would be fitting to post this essay again with a postscript.

On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was on an airplane with educator Sandy Rief, flying with some friends from Sao Paulo to Rio De Janeiro in Brazil. Sandy and I were in Sao Paulo to speak at a conference on Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. It was my second trip to Sao Paulo and my first time in Rio de Janeiro. As we were on route, the pilot came over the intercom with what appeared to be a rather lengthy announcement. Neither of us speak Portuguese but immediately we both knew something was wrong by the concerned look on the faces of our friends. They explained that the pilot had announced an airplane had flown into the World Trade Center in New York City. To say the least, we were stunned but certainly not prepared for what we would learn had happened and would take place that day. As we landed and entered the airport we noticed large groups of people standing in front of television monitors by many of the restaurants. In the taxi on the way to the apartment where we were staying, the driver in between listening to the radio, explained that he had a brother living in New York City and that a second airplane had flown into the World Trade Center. By now it was suspected that these were terrorist acts.

Upon entering the apartment we quickly turned on the television, only to watch again and again in horror as these two airplanes flew into the World Trade Center, a third crashed into the Pentagon, and a fourth in rural Pennsylvania. Like an event staged for a film, the situation seemed unreal to all of us. As we sat, thousands of miles from New York City, we watched the first tower collapse and immediately realized the unbelievable impacts of these events and that thousands of people were probably dead. We watched numbly as the second building fell. A day that was planned for pleasure and sight-seeing will remain etched in our memories as a day of great tragedy. We spent the next few hours calling family and friends. My nephew attended Columbia University and lived in upper Manhattan. Fortunately I got through to him and learned that he had just left his home when the first airplane struck. Two of the planes originated in Boston. Knowing the frequency with which my dear friend, Bob Brooks, jets around the country I called to find him safely at home. Despite the events of September 11th, Sandy and I completed the conference. The Brazilians were most gracious hosts in the face of this great tragedy.

These last twelve months comprise a year like no other in our lives. While I am not a historian, economist, banker or soldier, I am someone whose career has focused on understanding and helping others; families, children and adults. In this past year I have continued my travels, lectures, writing and clinical work. I have spoken with hundreds of children and adults. I have lectured to thousands of parents, educators and mental health professionals. I am still uncertain how all this will turn out or ultimately how this generation of children will be affected by this past year. I wonder what they have learned or how safe they feel; what they think about adults; or what they understand about how the very spiritual and religious resources from which many of us seek strength, support and answers can lead to the kind of behavior we observed on September 11th, and have since witnessed time and time again across the world, particularly in the middle east. I can’t remember as a child ever thinking the world might end, yet I know in this past year it is a thought that has confronted many children, sometimes in not so obvious ways. Last week while evaluating a boy with symptoms of ADHD and learning disability, I asked if he thought about death. He responded affirmatively. When I asked him what he thought he answered, “I think we’ll all die in seventeen years.” His answer surprised me. “Why seventeen years?” I asked. His answer surprised me further. He didn’t mention the world chaos we have become desensitized to in daily news and media reports. Instead he said, “My friend told me a comet would hit the earth in seventeen years and there is nothing we can do about it.”

Together we did some research and discovered that in fact, as far as anyone was aware, there is not a comet speeding toward earth. Perhaps five years ago I would have made less of this event, but not today. It has been my experience this past year that more children are thinking about their mortality. It is also my understanding, based upon the current research literature, that of this teenage generation, more teens are thinking about suicide and more teens question whether any of us will be alive on this earth in twenty years.

What have your children, students or patients learned from you this past year? What have they seen? Have they learned to manage anger and stress? Have they observed honesty, integrity, dignity, and concern for others? Have they witnessed empathy, acceptance, and compassion? Certainly what they have read in newspapers, viewed on television or heard on radio is frightening. It frightens me. A year ago, despite the conflicts around the world, I was confident in predicting that things would work out if we were patient. Now, even I’m uncertain. Every time I turn on the television news, listen to the radio or open a newspaper I wonder what new tragedy will befall us by our own hands.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote, “Humanity with all its fears, with all the hopes of future years is hanging breathless on thy fate.” In truth, it comes down to each and every one of us controlling what we can - our lives. What we can control is the empathy and compassion we demonstrate to others. We can control how we communicate with and accept each other. We can control the decisions and choices we make in our lives. In our first book, Raising Resilient Children, published just a number of months before 9/11, Bob Brooks and I emphasized that children require hope and courage. This principle is true today more than ever. These qualities help children develop the inner strength and resilience necessary to deal with the minor as well as the significant adversities that come their way. Children need more than just support and care. In this past year, a year like no other, I have come to more firmly believe that our children require daily affirmation and encouragement, our active involvement in their lives, and opportunities to participate in the community and a supportive neighborhood. Our children require boundaries, values, realistic expectations and caring schools. There is no precise formula, and unfortunately, there are no guarantees. If today’s children are to be prepared to deal with the world we have created and make a bright future, they must be resilient. They must learn to manage emotions, thoughts and behaviors through the common denominator of living, working with and being educated by available and caring adults. We must do our part. While the new millennium offers unlimited possibilities and unimaginable advances, the future lies not in technology but in our children. Children we instill with the qualities necessary to help them shape their futures with satisfaction and confidence. It is my hope that the coming year will be another year like no other, not due to tragedy, but because through our combined and unified efforts, good things will happen on this earth and in the lives of our children.

Sixteen years have passed since I penned this essay. The current generation of children know little more than we tell them of that year. Our children have grown up removing their shoes and liquids in airports, with the constant threat that terror and tragedy are daily events, sometimes around the corner. Is the world a safer or better place than sixteen years ago? Have we found common ground for how we want to live our lives and be governed? Unfortunately not. There is more hate, acrimony, intolerance, anger, outrage, division and distress than ever before. We as a country and a world are more polarized than perhaps ever in our history. Enough pointing fingers at each other. Enough politicizing and posturing. Do we need another unspeakable tragedy to remind us that our differences pale in comparison to our similarities? I hope not. It’s time we begin each day by giving thanks for what we have and who we are and promise to make our country and this world a better place by building up rather than tearing down. We’re running out of time. ◆

You can read the original article here: A year like no other