No question. 9/11 changed all of us.
The twisted madness that would lead people to carry out such unabashed cruelty—man against man—also turned the dial on an equally deep well of compassion, generosity and kindness….for a while.
Do you remember?
Miracles also occurred…..stories worth re-telling and passing on as reminders of the power of the human heart and spirit….reminders of the everyday opportunities we have to heal and to help,
not only others…but ourselves as well.
A few years after 9/11, I was a student at The New Seminary (the oldest interfaith seminary in North America, based in New York City). It was run by Rabbi Roger Ross, along with his wife, Deborah Steen-Ross, an Anglican priest. Rabbi Roger, as we called him, had his own life-altering experience while being a part of the New York City Crisis Counseling Team, in the aftermath. What he shared with us, I share with you now.
Rabbi Roger worked at Ground Zero in grueling and grotesque 14-hour shifts for many, many days. One afternoon, as he was moving through the mayhem, he noticed a lone firefighter, sitting on top of a pile of twisted rubble, crying unabashedly. As he made his way over to the distraught man, suddenly, he too, felt overwhelmed.
Wait just a minute—HE was supposed to be the one, holding it together, right? Like one more shrieking siren, his own inner critic began to wail in his ear. At a time when he should have been thinking of someone else, he found himself consumed only with his own feelings of inadequacy….his own inability to find the right words. Only one word came. “Run!”
Willing himself to move forward, Rabbi Roger assumed his years of training would kick in once he was face to face with the sobbing and exhausted man.
To his horror…… nothing.
So, without a word, he simply plopped down in the rubble right next to the young man whose gaze remained blank and unwavering. The only thing that passed between them were periodic gulping sobs of stench-filled air.
Minutes passed. Then more.
Rabbi Roger was not sure how long they sat there, saying absolutely nothing to one another. He only knew how completely idiotic and impotent he felt at a time when he was supposed to “be there” for this grief-stricken young hero.
Then, it hit him.
HE was in his own way—– focused, entirely upon HIMSELF and his seeming ineptitude. The eloquent and comforting words he wanted to access were caught under the rubble of his own sanctimonious, highly critical ego—-in his anger and lack of compassion toward himself. In that moment his focus shifted––from what was lacking in him—-to the desire to care for, and comfort someone who needed something beyond what words could ever provide.
Rabbi Roger silently asked God for restoration of this young man’s spirit, that his fractured soul would be freed of lingering fear and bitterness, enabling him to have a new view of life that would be whole and positive, someday.
Then, he reached for the man’s hand. More quiet time passed. When the young man seemed ready to release his grip, Rabbi Roger knew it was time to move on, assuming he would never see the young man again. The two parted silently as well.
A few weeks later, when he was attending yet another firefighter’s funeral, Rabbi Roger felt a tap on the shoulder. As he turned, he recognized the now clean face of that same young man. For just a flash—Rabbi Roger’s inner critic reminded him of what he thought were his failings that day.
He was about to apologize, when the young man said,
“I still don’t know who you are. But what you said to me that day, sitting on that giant pile of Hell—–saved my life. I could not stand to think about the father and brother and friends I had lost. I wanted to die, too. You sat down. You took my hand. No fanfare. No flowery words. You were just there.
Then you told me,
'Keep the Faith. This is not the end of YOUR life. Now is your chance to be a man, for yourself, your family, and your community.' You were exactly right, in the exact moment I was contemplating taking my own life, you told me the truth.
Because of you, I got up. The anger and fear went away. I felt brave and determined. This WAS my chance–to step up to the challenges, to become an example of courage and loyalty and good will, in the face of all this destruction. I will never forget you.
Your words. They were just what I needed to hear. Thank you."
Rabbi Roger knew no words had come from him. They were conveyed when he opened his heart and reached for a hand, saying nothing.
Sometimes, when we think we are failing, we are doing anything but. Sometimes when we bypass our own fear of “doing it right or behaving perfectly”—–a compassionate gesture, guided purely by faith, creates the miracle that means everything.
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