Today is September 11, a date that 21 years and one day ago carried little historical significance for most of us. Then came the airplanes, the burning buildings, the rubble, and the horror. Eventually, we began mourning.

Although more than two decades have passed since the terrorist attacks that left literal holes in the World Trade Center site, the Pentagon, and a Pennsylvania field, as well as figurative holes in our collective psyche, many people are still working through Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. The one I see most often around me is anger.

“Never forget!” people cry as they fly their flags. It sounds benign, but in many cases–though certainly not all–those words fuel hatred and intolerance for beliefs that don’t conform to their own. When used as a rallying cry, those words perversely churn up the very fear they were meant to assuage.

While I agree we should never forget, the parts worth remembering aren’t the terrorists or the extreme ideology they used to justify their actions. Instead, I go back to the words I wrote some years ago:

Let’s remember the people who lost their lives for doing nothing more sinister than going to work that day, or for getting on an airplane, or for just going about their regular routines.

Let’s remember the spouses and children and parents who still suffer the gut-wrenching loss of someone they loved with their very soul. Remember them, grieve them, celebrate them, and carry on–for them.

Let’s especially remember the first responders and the ordinary people, heroes all, who turned toward danger when all odds were against them. Let’s remember how they raced into smoke and flames and blood and gore to save anyone they could, without regard for race, religion, nationality, or political affiliation.

Let’s remember the day we were reduced to our very humanity and wanted nothing more than to help somehow, some way. 

#NeverForget should not become a rallying cry for hatred and intolerance. (Isn’t that what redirected those airplanes in the first place? I can still hear my mom saying ‘Two wrongs don’t make a right!’) Instead, I choose to not forget the selflessness that took over so many people in a moment of unimaginable crisis.

#NeverForget is my catalyst to do the right thing, to make the world a better place, to build bridges instead of walls. Don’t get me wrong. Bad people committed unspeakable horrors on September 11th. There is no excuse, and we must work to eradicate the terror-mongering that holds people hostage to fear. But that also means we have to surrender our own tendency to react to others out of fear just because they look, act, or think differently.

After 21 years, it’s time to move toward acceptance, grief’s final stage. Acceptance doesn’t mean we condone or approve of the attacks in any way. It means only that we are learning how to live looking forward rather than back. It means that we can assimilate the lessons we’ve learned and use them meaningfully. It means not getting stuck in the past, but engaging with reality as it is today.

The words I used to close that original post remain true and relevant:

We can’t sacrifice our humanity for the sake of our existence. Live in peace. React in love. Help whenever you can. Never forget.

Let’s use 9/11 to make us better. We can’t afford anything less.

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