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When the Sky Falls: Workplace Community and the Lessons of 9/11

Updated: Feb 18, 2019

On September 11, 2001, I was working as a counselor for adjudicated and at-risk youth at a private school in southeastern Pennsylvania; about an hour-and-a-half from Manhattan.

We had a typical morning gathering with our students. We held a circle. Staff and students did a short “check-in”, saying something about how they were feeling that morning. We discussed some goals for the week, then everyone went off to class.

Around 8:45 EDT, like everyone else around the world that day, we realized that something terrible was happening.

This was before the era of smartphones. Teachers and staff who were in the habit of playing the radio during class, like the shop and art teachers, were the first to hear what was happening.

I started seeing staff walking down the hall looking odd and shocked. My first thought was to wonder who was absent that day. Our school had many students struggling with drug addiction and trying to break away from various kinds of criminal behavior. Was one of them hurt? Did someone overdose?

A quick meeting was called in the counselor’s office.

The first plane had just hit the North Tower. Initially, we all assumed it was a terrible accident. Many of our students were from New York and had family in living in the city, but we still decided to do nothing yet. We would wait until more information was available.

Then the next plane hit the South Tower. Then the Pentagon was hit. Then another plane crashed in western Pennsylvania. What the hell was happening?

The staff were bewildered. Nothing like this had happened in most of our lifetimes. We didn’t have a template or script for what to do next. Our responsibilities that day paled in significance compared to the horrors that victims and first responders faced, but we felt overwhelmed.

We were momentarily paralyzed. Eventually, we realized that regardless of how we were feeling, it was wrong to withhold the information from staff and students any longer.

The most interpersonally savvy young people were already starting to ask if something had happened. They could see that the adults were upset. Just like my first reaction, they assumed a classmate was hurt or in trouble.

Not knowing what else to do, we did this.

We called another circle in our main meeting room. First, we told them everything we knew. We also told them everything we didn’t know. We assured them that as far as we knew, our local area was in no immediate danger. Our school was in a town of no great importance, but still… no one really understood what was happening yet.

Next, we said that we would go around the circle, in order, and one-by-one. We used something called a talking-piece; a small object that we passed from person to person. Whoever had the talking-piece was the only one who could talk. The others would listen.

We told the group that they could say whatever they needed to say. We only asked that each person speak for themselves and their own feelings; not for others.

There was a kaleidoscope of reactions. Some people just cried. Others were consumed with worry for loved ones in the city. Some staff and students prayed for peace. Others hoped for vengeance against whoever did this to us. There was sadness, worry, anger, and rage. There was wisdom, as well as the natural urge to strike back.

In that circle, we began to see to the outlines of the new normal, and the new divisions, that would come to define the era we live in today.

Before becoming a counselor, I had attended a private military academy. In my undergraduate studies during the early 1990’s, I was enrolled in a specialized intensive Russian language program. I was also dual majoring in political science. I and my classmates were preparing to fight the great war of the late 20th century; the Cold War.

I had a photo negative experience of 9/11 in December of 1991. I was sitting in the cadet lounge with friends. The television was on. The room suddenly erupted into cheers, high-fives, and chest thumping. The news had just broken on CNN that the Soviet Union had fallen.

The “evil empire” was no more. The fall of the Iron Curtain was especially great news for eastern Europe and millions around the world living under the yoke of murderous communist rule.

And yet, those of us in the Russian language department, most of whom were preparing for careers in intelligence and foreign service, were also a bit disoriented. Our war had ended before we even had a chance to join in the battle.

As with 9/11, few people saw this massive change coming in December of 1991. The axis of history turns on such days. Countless individual lives would veer onto a new path. My life’s path changed that day as well.

While sitting in the circle with my students on 9/11, I tried to organize a jumble of emotions and thoughts. At that point, it was fairly clear that the attacks were committed by terrorists.

Then and in the days that followed, I couldn’t shake the odd memory of going to see the movie Rambo III with my brother as a kid in the summer of ’88, when the Cold War still seemed interminable.

In that movie, Sylvester Stallone teams up with the mujahideen in Afghanistan to fight the evil Soviets. In the film, the mujahideen are portrayed as sympathetic heroes driven by a righteous cause to expel a foreign invader. Fast forward to 9/11 and the same people were flying planes into American buildings.

That inconsistency and many other inconvenient facts from another era were going down the Orwellian memory hole. We had a new enemy. The new orthodoxy implied that they had always been our enemy. As Orwell’s Big Brother had asserted, “we have always been at war with Eurasia.” All memories to the contrary were old-think.

With the formal end of the Cold War in 1991, my classmates and I assumed that we would finally enter a long period of peace. That was not to be. A new enemy was ready in the wings. WWI led to WWII. WWII led to the Cold War. The Cold War would lead to the War on Terror.

Now I understood why, after the fall of the Soviet Union, a well-connected faculty member from the Russian department had recommended that I start studying Farsi. “Who speaks Farsi?”, I asked at the time.

In the circle with my colleagues and students on 9/11, I doubt anyone would have been interested in my geo-political disorientation or my own complicated relationship with the country I love. It was a time for raw emotion and relational solidarity, not for intellectual investigation.

When it was my turn to speak, I simply said that my heart ached for those who were dying and suffering. I obliquely shared my other concerns by saying that I feared that many more people were going to die in the coming years. I knew enough about international politics to understand what would soon be unleashed. Many of my family members and old classmates would be going off to a new war. I had no doubt about that.

One of the things I valued most about that day, was that I worked in a place, and at a time, when it was understood that there would be a range of emotional reactions and political opinions in the room.

We may have shook our fists at the sky on 9/11, but unlike much of US society today, we didn’t shake them at each other.

It was the end of a less divided time and the beginning of a far more complicated period of US history.

In many situations that followed, I fell back on the lessons from that day and what we did right as a workplace community. First, we told the truth as far as we understood it. Next, we let everyone be heard. Lastly, we focused on supporting and trying to better understand those around us before taking further action.

Each of us was allowed the time to speak. No one was silenced. No one was bullied into ideological agreement or emotional congruence. We made it clear that in this moment, there was no one right way to feel, think, or react.

As I’ve said many times in this blog, conflict is natural. There’s a time to fight. However, conflict is only fruitful when it is matched with a commitment to truth, wisdom, and understanding.

These lessons have helped me to assist others when the proverbial sky falls; after a school shooting, criminal malfeasance, workplace betrayals, professional moral failures, and after relational falling outs in my personal life.

In each case the key factor in organizational and personal recovery, was not the depth of the harm or the severity of the event. The key factor was whether the workplace community could still offer care and support to one another despite their differences in personal history, experience, and opinion. Because when the sky falls, we cannot survive alone.

Check out the Leading Conflict store for practical and hard-hitting resources that will help you put these ideas into action.

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