On September 11th, 2011 I held the names of two men from the New York Fire Department who died ten years earlier. Their names were Lieutenant Joseph Leavey and Firefighter Thomas Kelly, both from Ladder 15. These ‘accountability tags’ I carried went with me up 110 storeys representing the height of the Twin Towers in New York City, with the Texas Firewalkers Memorial Stair Climb in Austin. Climbing alongside firefighters who were carrying 20kg/45lbs in gear, we commemorated the lives and deaths of the 343 firefighters who lost their lives at the World Trade Center in 2001. This experience was a profound one for me, and even though I would never have a chance to meet or know these two men whose names I called and rang a bell for at the end of the climb, it gave me an opportunity to glean some valuable insights. From those involved in this event to those being celebrated, I’ve drawn some “mind” links from the lessons I’ve learned, given to me from both the living and the dead.
Heroes in Our Daily Lives
Over the past few weeks, firefighters in central Texas have been battling blazes raging out of control because of the drought and heavy winds. Over 1600 homes have been burned with only a few lives lost. Over a thousand firefighters have been beating back these infernos – and even though these men and women have been pulling multi-day shifts to contain the fires, many of them, tired and still smelling of smoke, came to celebrate the members of their ‘family’ who died in New York City ten years earlier. To these individuals I lift my hat – for working in these treacherous conditions, for risking their own lives to save the lives of others. They are heroes in my mind, and while I was amazed and honoured to be climbing with these people (who, afterwards, left the event to go back to fight the fires), I realized that heroism is not only reserved for those who wear these uniforms of courage.
One of the core values of the New York Fire Department is “an unwavering call to protect and serve”. And while most of us don’t work in fields that put our lives on the line, I witness people answering the call of protecting and serving every day. I watch parents supporting their children, kids standing up to bullying, individuals and groups volunteering resources to causes they believe in. What may seem like a little thing to us – helping a senior citizen with their groceries – can be important to them. As the rule of the mind goes “what we focus on expands”; and when we look for opportunities to protect and serve, they appear. Whenever we act in this supportive way, we begin to roll the virtuous (rather than vicious) cycle for others.
John Wayne is quoted as saying “courage is being scared to death…and saddling up anyway.” I would suppose that at some point in time most firefighters have had to move past fears to do their jobs heroically. Moving outside our comfort zone, taking a stand or letting something go, helping another or giving them space… these are courageous and heroic steps we can take in our lives.
Never Forget, With Purpose
One of the themes of the memorial stair climb is to “never forget” the deaths of these first responders. It was a celebration of their work and purpose, of their commitment to their firefighting fraternity. Men and women spoke with pride and sadness of the loss of these lives. They were climbing so that their efforts, ten years earlier, would be celebrated, and that their tireless and selfless deeds would be kept alive. “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants” is attributed to Sir Isaac Newton, yet it felt appropriate but unsaid when firefighters added their own words to the names of those who died. “His friends called him…” made personal the list of the fallen, humans who were responsible to saving the lives of countless others.
With the busyness in our lives we tend to forget the actions of others who have supported us directly and indirectly. At the same time, we tend to bring to mind, quite easily, those who have hurt us or mistreated us, now and in the past. It seems disproportional in energy that we focus on the hurt rather than the help, and, over time, this can take a toll on our own health and happiness.
I’ve mentioned it before, but I think it deserves another mention: there is a BIG difference between forgiving and forgetting. When we forgive, let go of the emotional power and gravity something or someone has over us, that affects us on a deep emotional or mental level. It doesn’t mean that we like, agree or condone those actions, that it’s ok what happened – it doesn’t have to be ok to successfully move through hurt. It also doesn’t mean that we need to forget to forgive, because forgetting may leave us open to mistreatment again. Sometimes, when we forgive, we might think about it less, or we might be able to see the lessons from it rather than the injury. But we remember so that we can take the past and transform it into a better future. Many individuals and countries have an event in the past we’d like to forget happened or wish it hadn’t happened, but it is in forgiving, not forgetting, that gives us the power and wisdom to move on.
Grief and Clarity
I’m a crier. If you go to a sad movie with me, you need to be prepared with tissues or a slobbering mess. While there might be occasions where I can have a ‘stiff upper lip’, there are many situations where I’m an open, emoting book. And I don’t apologise for that. As you know our feelings can help lead us to better understand our own needs. Sadness, as you may have guessed it, is all about loss (whether real or imagined). And when I look at situations around the world, loss of life is something that I often feel sad about. While they often talk about the last stage of grief being acceptance or resignation, I sometimes feel that the final step is a greater clarity – similar to the freshness in the air that comes after a long awaited rain.
At the stair climb, after I had finished my flights, had read my two names out, had rung the bell in their honour, I shook the hand of a chaplain that had been on the same ladder as the men I climbed for. He thanked me, and I, in a habitual response, said “My pleasure”. As I walked away, I realized what I had said and regretted it. Some time later, after I had spent a few moments with myself, I was lucky enough for him to pass me again, so I explained, “while I said ‘my pleasure’, I take no pleasure in carrying the names of colleagues who lost their lives on duty. I meant to say, ‘my honour’.” And I wept. He understood and so did others around him. Sometimes in high emotional states or with things that are important to us, we find the words we need to say, are clear on how we feel or what we believe. There is no shame in feeling, because emotions can lead us to a better understanding of ourselves and our motivations and directions.
The Phoenix Rises
You’ve probably heard the legend of the phoenix – a bird with beautiful plumage which, at the end of its life, builds a nest of twigs and then ignites itself, consuming bird and nest, leaving only ash and an egg from which another phoenix hatches. I know that sometimes fire is used to promote growth, that there are forest plants that start growing only after they have been scorched… While the reality of the devastation of uncontrolled fires and urban disasters that bring chaos and loss may be quite different, I’m optimistically looking at the possibility of new growth or learning emerging from the ashes of damage and pain.
I met a number of firefighters who were the epitome of the phoenix. They not only rise fire after fire, but their grounded and affirmative conviction are inspiring to me in my daily life. You could say they give me wings. While I sometimes lose sight of my fortunes and safety, and focus on the little bumps in the road, thinking of them now helps me put it back in perspective.
“Be the change you wish to see in the world”, a quote of Gandhi, can be an inspiration for starting an inner peace we need to make outer peace a possibility in the future. Whatever our past losses or mistakes, if you are reading this, today is the day we can grab hold of and really live, in honour of the Josephs and Thomases.
As Christopher Robin said to Pooh “you are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.” You are.