For anyone older than about 18 to 20 years old, the mere mention of September 11, 2001, evokes visceral memories of the day the twin towers fell in New York City. Today marks the sixteenth anniversary of this heartbreaking event, and when asked to remember where they were on that day, most people have an almost automatic reflex, causing them to hold their breath and flit back to the memories buried within their emotional awareness. What is this universal emotion we are experiencing in recalling tragedy? Vulnerability!
No matter how old you were, the crack in the cosmic egg which occurred that day caused an entire nation to feel vulnerable. Something shifted in all of us, and that shift may still be affecting how we show up in the world today.
Choosing to see the “Light of a new day”
One of my most significant personal memories of that day involves one of SWIHA’s Muslim students. Wearing her traditional headscarf, she peaked into the classroom that was already filled with students sitting around the TV, watching the fiery images, seeking to understand who had orchestrated such a hateful crime. In a vulnerable yet courageous voice, this young student inquired, "Is it ok if I come in?"
It seemed like time stood still as the class full of students awaited my reply. With open arms, I said, "Of course!” She sighed in relief, confiding that she had had words with her father about leaving the safety of her home. Despite the fact that her father felt that it may be too risky for her to leave the house given the events of the day, this student informed us: "I told my father I would be safe at SWIHA because they look past the body and into our hearts!"
We prayed as a community that day. We prayed for guidance, understanding, and tolerance. Although my husband and co-owner of SWIHA, Dr. Brian Miller, wasn't usually on campus during the day, he had accompanied me that morning for moral support and to provide whatever leadership might be needed. He stood at the front of the classroom, praying that we would transcend the darkness and would not get lost in the fear of the unknown. After the prayer, the young Muslim student walked over and respectfully said, "Thank you, Sir. I just want you to know that I do not share my father's fear. I choose to see the Light of a new day!" This young woman was epitomizing what we now know to be resiliency— hope for the future.
Below, we have collected some of the stories of other SWIHA students, graduates, and staff members who were courageous enough to share what they remember, experienced, and learned as a result of this tragedy:
What We Remember…
Autumn Blackwood, a relatively new student at SWIHA, was in her 4th grade classroom when a teacher ran in, sobbing that her daughter was in New York City: “To this day, I still don't know if the woman’s daughter survived or not. We didn't receive any information, and my nine-year-old self didn't understand what was happening! I just noticed that lots of kids were suddenly being taken home by their parents, and that my mom couldn't leave work.”
When asked to reflect on how that has impacted her today Autumn confides, “I think that perhaps it has instilled a sense of ‘worst case scenario’ in me. Whenever anyone looks incredibly agitated, I always assume the worst. I get very nervous in public buildings or government buildings, and I'm always afraid that I've missed some important piece of information.” Continuing her introspection, Autumn admits, “I struggle with an anxiety disorder, and until now, I’ve never considered whether my 9/11 experience may have instilled in me that sense of panic or if it's just the way my brain has been wired.”
Danielle Warford, a graduate of SWIHA’s Yoga Teacher Training, also is familiar with the mental toll that the day took. She recalls waking up as a 6th grader on that day; her mother was hysterical because her cousin was in one of the towers. “The worst part the story is that my mother’s cousin was never found.” When Danielle reflects upon this memory, she wonders if it impacted who she is more deeply that she had previously acknowledged: “Looking back, what I realized is that at the young age of 11, I made a decision that the world didn’t feel safe. I was terrified to leave my mom that day and still remember the anxiety of leaving her and wondering if something tragic was going to happen.” Now, as an adult, Danielle ponders whether the anxiety she deals with currently could be a direct result of 9/11: “When you think about people who were children or teenagers then, it does make you wonder about the mind-body connection and if they could be dealing with a lot of residual anxiety.”
Michelle Redmond, a now retired firefighter and SWIHA graduate, was getting ready for work when she saw the news. She immediately made the hour drive to the training center, where she began coordinating a search and rescue team to be deployed to New York City to help with relief efforts. She couldn't join this team herself because she had a broken back at the time, yet she states: “I will never forget all who served, worked, and who lost their lives… who were left behind to pick up the pieces from that day. In one way or another, we all were there witch each person— praying for hope and praying that this would never happen again.”
She, too, has felt anxiety as a result of this tragedy— evidence that the effects of trauma don’t go away overnight: “As much work as I have done on myself, I still get tense and tearful when the topic of 9/11 comes up. I know it isn't mine directly, yet I sure feel the anxiety flash through me.”
Kaye Coleman, who would later become a SWIHA graduate, had just moved to New York City three weeks before 9/11, leaving behind California to pursue a career in the field of Mental Health. Kaye remembers the eerie silence that fell over the city after the towers crumbled and how everyone seemed to have stumbled into a deep state of shock and mourning. A mere two days later, she started her new job at a women’s shelter in Brooklyn: “As I began to venture out in the city for work and life, I saw memorials set up all over. I was deeply moved by how people were coming together to help and comfort each other. I went to the first peace vigil held in Union Square, and we walked with candles, singing for peace, and weeping for those lost. I wanted to get involved and ended up marching in Washington, D.C., to promote peace.”
JennieMae Casillas, a graduate of SWIHA’s Yoga Teacher Training program, was working as a flight attendant at the time, although she was off duty that day. Her then boyfriend was a volunteer firefighter who went to the Pentagon to provide assistance after the attacks. JennieMae remembers feeling worthless and like she had no skills to offer, yet it was this frustration that drove her to pray— something she hadn’t done in years. “I felt this overwhelming peace and energy—as if I was a Jedi, bringing peace into the world through sheer force of will.” She continues to reflect: “Coming to SWIHA five years later, I recognized that feeling I experienced when praying on September 11th! I felt the feelings of connectedness, of overwhelming peace, a palpable energetic vibration. It’s a feeling I attempt to connect others with on a daily basis and the reason why I continue my studies at SWIHA.”
Marie Minor Neugent, a SWIHA graduate who is now a Holistic Wellness Coach, was affected more positively. She was at work on the 20th floor of a building in Center City in Philadelphia when everyone was evacuated. She reports that with every step she took, all she thought about of was getting home to hug her children. In reverent reflection, Maria shares, “For me the lesson was always let those you love know you love them.” Being the positive person that she is, Maria affirms that from that day forward, she has freely given love and gives hugs as she ends conversations and encounters with family and friends. In appreciation for her freedom, she reminds herself and others often, “No day is promised! Say ‘I love you’ as often as you can, while you can!”
Susan Davis, a graduate of SWIHA’s programs in Massage Therapy, Holistic Nutrition, and Life Coaching, remembers watching the events all day on a little black and white TV a friend had brought into work. She reflects, “What sticks out to me most was reading about the individual people whose lives ended that day. There was a girl that was my age that spoke seven languages. I remember thinking how much she had accomplished at her young age and how it was gone.” Susan further adds, “I think what we can learn from this is to live your purpose now. Make an impact now. We should aim every day to ‘be the change we wish to see in the world’ while we can.”
Barbara Horton-Miller, then 23, was working for a bank. She remembers stopping in her tracks, watching the tragic events unfold—as well as the acts of heroism and the resolve that we displayed as a nation. Barbara optimistically reflects, “I learned that when tragedy strikes, human spirit makes a striking display. People sacrifice their time, energy, money, and sometimes even their lives to search for, feed, shelter, and give hope to their fellow human. We do what needs to be done because of our compassion and love for our brothers and sisters.”
Overcoming Darkness and Discovering Inner Resilience
In the days and weeks after 9/11, SWIHA faced some of its darkest days in its 25 year history. The student census went from 1000 students per week to less than 400 students. At the time, we did not offer any federal financial aid; we were strictly a cash school. Our income dropped drastically, resulting in a large staff layoff. Thankfully, some of our instructors continued to teach classes and deferred their pay.
Along with the fear over the events of September 11th, we felt a new kind of vulnerability: financial uncertainty. To make matters worse, we had been given notice that we must vacate our Scottsdale property where the campus was then located. Days before 9/11, we had just signed a purchase agreement to renovate an abandoned bowling alley in Tempe, Arizona, that would nearly triple the size of the campus. I personally began to wonder if we should make the leap… and yet, not doing so would mean closing the school.
Kneeling in prayer, my continuous question was, "O Divine Guide, would you have us do?" I felt like I was caught in a fog of uncertainty. As I rose from a tearful prayer session, my husband challenged me with, "What would you do if you weren't afraid?" Without hesitation, my answer came from the verse I had been meditating upon: "If God is for you, who can be against you?" With a deep breath, I affirmed, "I’d take the leap in faith and convert a bowling alley into a college!" That was a demonstration of personal resilience!
The rest is history. Now, the converted bowling alley that has served as SWIHA’s home for over 15 years is being coveted by student housing developers. We once again face the vulnerability of uncertainty, yet we have learned resiliency. Although there is a small amount of fog, we look into the future with optimism about the day on which we can reveal our new address.
What so many of these individuals are describing is the power of human resilience— the ability to overcome challenges of all kinds (trauma, tragedy, personal crises, plain “ole” life problems) and bounce back stronger, wiser, and more personally powerful.
One of the key components to creating this strength is the ability to put the past in the past. Theresa May, a SWIHA graduate, shares what she’s learned about doing exactly that after the events of September 11th: “I learned that forgiveness isn’t a ‘one and done’ endeavor. It is a mindset, a perspective that needs to be visited again and again. For me, at least, it isn’t a place that I live— rather, a place I must visit to restore my peace of mind.” This is a significant lesson and one that can apply to all our experiences of trauma and pain, no matter the size or scope.
We'll close with a reflection on resilience from James Patrick, the newly appointed Associate Dean of Education for SWIHA, who was in New York when the towers fell. "It was a moment in time and my life never to be forgotten... I have no words. Instead of dwelling on the past, I choose to use those memories to motivate me to be a better human being and to live for today!" It is this attitude that has shaped his no-nonsense coaching style and the development of the course he designed for and teaches at SWIHA entitled an Introduction to Holistic Entrepreneurship and Self-Empowerment.
“Every September, I make a point to revisit the site of where the towers stood,” affirms James. “I am reminded of the sacrifices of those who died that day and how I have the privilege of living my life freely each day. I believe we can choose to get past anything, especially when we have a great community and support system backing us! ”