All of us will have our own unique memories of Sept. 11, 2001, memories filled with shock, grief, and sadness. In the history of every nation there are such watershed moments where no one goes untouched, and after which nothing will ever be quite the same again.
But if history teaches us anything — and as a historian by training, I certainly hope that it can do so — then it teaches us that it is how a people respond to an historical trauma that determine the ultimate significance of events like 9/11. Such events can become a source of continued bitterness, or they can become transformed into memorials that stand in the collective memory as a reminder to reach for a higher consciousness, to seek peace instead of war, and to feel compassion instead of anger.
This is also true in our personal lives. We all suffer. We are all on the receiving end of tragedy and disappointment to a greater or lesser degree. What matters ultimately is how these experiences are incorporated into our character. It is what we make of our experience — even the bitterest experiences — that determine who we are. It is not what we say or what we think that defines us. It is what we do.
Earlier this year, the President of the United States signed into law a bill that designates today — Sept. 11 — as a “National Day of Service and Remembrance.” At the time, New York Senator Chuck Schumer said that “Sept. 11 should not only be a day for mourning — it should be a day to think about our neighbors, our community and our country. We can take a tragic day in our nation’s history and turn it into a force for good. We can make it a day one which we can give back in remembrance of those who lost their lives.”
At Fairfield University we have made service an integral component of our educational approach, an emphasis that springs from our Jesuit tradition of “helping soul.” We expect all of our students to begin quite early in their undergraduate careers to give back to the community around them. Some will teach literacy, or volunteer to build houses in this country or overseas. Others will work with social service agencies, or be active on campus in our efforts to be environmentally responsible. A week ago at our Convocation, Diane Wilson, the author of An Unreasonable Woman: The True Story of Shrimpers, Politicos, Polluters and the Fight for Seadrift, Texas, addressed our incoming class of 2013. Ms. Wilson is a shrimper from Texas who fought to keep a plastics company from polluting the waters on which she and other depended for their livelihood. Her story is a remarkable one, because she stood up for what she knew was right and fought powerful interests in the process, standing up alone to government and big business until finally, others began to join her in the fight.
The reason that we want our students to have contact with remarkable people like Ms. Wilson, is that we want them to see how important it is that that they also are inspired to do the right thing, and to act in the service of the common good.
I believe that at this moment in our history — with our country facing a difficult road ahead economically and unemployment reaching 10 percent — that we are going to have to rediscover our community instincts if we are going to be the nation that we want to be. We are going to have to develop the habit of reaching out in assistance to those who need our help. It is time to put habits of the “me” generations behind us, and rediscover the true joys of working together for the good of all.
If the tragic events of Sept. 11 can be transformed in our historical consciousness into a call to service, then the men and women who lost their lives 8 years ago will have a truly fitting memorial.