I've always had a weird and complicated relationship with 9/11.
Obviously in many ways, the day was absolutely terrifying. As I've written about before, I worked across the street from the World Trade Center at the time in 1 Liberty Plaza - this was the black steel building that many thought would fall soon after. I wasn't watching this on television, I was living this. I saw people jump out of windows. I heard the screams and panic in the streets. I watched the first tower collapse in Battery Park and was one of the many people enveloped in a cloud of dust. As a young kid just out of college, this opened my eyes to the harsh real world. It was, in many ways, the end of my innocence.
On the other hand, the day has always represented hope and resilience for me. On a normal day, I would have been coming out of the World Trade Center almost exactly when the planes hit. And, I had a lot of people I knew who could have been affected: I had worked in the Financial District for several years at this point and had many friends who also lived and worked in the area; my wife (then my girlfriend) lived a few blocks away; and I have a number of friends and family in FDNY and NYPD. Despite all of that, I didn't lose a single friend or loved one. On that fateful day (and in the months and years beyond), I also saw the best in a lot of people. Friends and strangers alike opened their doors and hearts and helped their fellow citizens. We lived in Battery Park City for years afterwards (and I continued to work in the Financial District until 2008), and we saw the resilience and strength of a community and city first hand.
For a long time, I really thought September 11th, 2011 would be the defining point in my life. Certainly, it was an important day in my life and I'm sure it's affected me in some deep, deep ways that I still don't (and might never) fully understand. That said, I don't think about it on a day to day basis anymore, and I probably haven't for 5 years. Sure, I still get emotional when I recount that day, or when I watch shows like 102 Minutes that Changed America - but frankly the only time I consciously think about it is on anniversaries like this.
The other reason it's complicated for me is that, as you may know, my birthday is September 12th. Celebrating birthdays is another sort of bizarre ritual, and in many ways mirrors the way we "celebrate" these tragedies: mourning the loss of youth while at the same time celebrating life. With these anniversaries falling on nearly the same day, I guess that just really adds to this bag of mixed emotions.
Ten years later, I'm a different person living in a different city. As a cancer survivor, September 11th isn't even the greatest personal tragedy I've dealt with. But as I learned from September 11th, tragedy has a way of taking a back seat to life. It's now been two years since I've been declared cancer free, and just like September 11th I don't think about it every day. Both of these tragedies have helped shape me into the person I've become, and have become a deeply integrated part of my being, but neither are something I think about consciously each day.
The lesson here is that bad things happen in life, but they don't have to - and won't - define us forever. At some level, I think that's why anniversaries like this are so important: it's a way for us to celebrate the complicated relationships we have with loss and life, and reflect on the impact these tragedies have on who we are. In other words, never forget - but don't let that get in the way of living either.