Sunday, September 11, 2011

9/11, Defining Moments, and Paradigm Shifts

Social Jerk describes her experiences of 9/11 quite movingly on her blog this week, talking about the significance it had for her as a lifelong New Yorker who had just left home for the first time to begin college. She contextualizes this narrative by pointing out that social work practice involves helping people to tell their stories, and all too often, helping people cope with the aftermath of trauma.

In reading her reflections, and those of others, I find myself turning to two additional theoretical constructs to better understand what folks went through. I'll share them in the context of my own reflections on that day.

1) Paradigm Shifts
I'm a few years older than SJ. On 9/11/01, I was a 19 year old college senior in Boston. I didn't have a landline phone, and nobody was watching television that morning, so the first inkling I got that something might be wrong was my cellphone had no service...and continued to have no service.

Mid-morning, I had a meeting at the college chapel, where I was involved in student leadership. When I got there, everyone looked somber. One of the chaplains pulled me aside:
"Do you know what happened?" 
"No...what happened?"
"There's been an attack on the World Trade Center, and there was just another one on the Pentagon." 
I couldn't figure out what she was talking about. "What do you mean?" 
"There was an attack. A plane flew into the building. A lot of people have died."
I was still lost, couldn't make sense of what she was saying - or didn't want to believe it. "How do they know it was an attack? Could it have been an accident?" 
"Oh, honey. No, they're sure. Come into the study, we have the news on."
There were a handful of other students sitting there. We all stared somewhat blankly at the television, and watched the planes fly into the towers, and the towers later collapse, over and over again on the news. Nobody went to class. Eventually, the chaplain prompted us to call our families, who would want to know we were ok. Late in the day, I stumbled back to my dorm, still dazed - numb.

Looking back, I know that my confusion and disconnection was largely because what had happened didn't fit into any of my existing cognitive schemas. In Piagetian terms, I was trying to assimilate the information with what I knew about the world - for example, wondering if it had been a plane crash or accident. I didn't have any past experiences that would help me understand it.

Things started to sink in fairly quickly, though. During the night of 9/11, I jerked awake several times at small noises, in response to a subconscious sense of danger. As I got un-numb over the next few days, I became consciously aware of a profound sense of being unsafe in the world. To move forward, I had to figure out what it meant to live in a world where such things happen. Piaget labeled this process of shifting schemas to fit new information "accommodation."

2) Defining Moments
This second theme has become clearer to me more from how people experience the anniversaries of 9/11 than from the original experience. We've known for a long time that there is a cohort effect - that people seem to interpret world events similarly to others in their age group, but differently from other age groups. We've tried to describe these differences by naming generations: "greatest generation," "silent generation," "baby boomers," "generation x," "millennial generation."

I fall at the beginning of the millennials, a group described as trusting, collaborative, and energetic, perhaps the a result of a largely protected childhood. The only period of war during our lifetimes had been the Persian Gulf war in the early 1990s. We believed the world to be safe, and to feel as positively toward us as we felt toward it.

For us, 9/11 will probably always feel significant as the day we learned the world isn't safe. In contrast, my mother pinpoints Kennedy's assassination as the moment she lost the illusion of safety. For my grandparents, that moment was Pearl Harbor.

One of the news programs today interviewed young people who came of age after 9/11, and they all acknowledge 9/11 as a defining moment. But they also refused the interviewer's attempt to label them the "9/11 generation." They and I hope that in the decades ahead of us, there will be opportunities to define ourselves by strengths and achievements rather than tragedies.

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