Labor Day musings, and putting things into perspective

Posted by: ST on September 3, 2007 at 3:56 pm

In a bit of a departure from talking about politics and other hot button issues, I wanted to write some today about human failings – that is, the inability of all of us to, at some point or another, practice certain things that we preach, take things in stride, and not live our lives to the fullest.

In my piece about my time in NYC during 9-11, I wrote the following:

It would be an understatement to say that one of the events that changed all of our lives in a most major way was 9-11. As you all know, I was in NYC when 9-11 happened. The first plane struck at 8:46 a.m. and during that time, my friend and I were in Rockefeller Ctr laughing and joking and taking a few more pictures for what we thought was going to be our last day there. We’d no idea what had happened or what was yet to come. A little before 9, we were standing by the Today show studios, trying to get on TV. By 9:25 or so, we were eating breakfast at Roxy’s Delicatessen in Times Square. We’d made lunch plans with a friend for around noontime. Well, while we were sitting there eating breakfast, my cell phone rang once and went immediately into voice mail, which was odd. The little voice mail notification kept going off and it was bugging me. I thought it may be my friend having to cancel lunch plans with us. I went outside of Roxy’s to try to the voice mail. I couldn’t get any of the buttons to work, and was irritated a bit because as I was standing outside, all of these emergency vehicles were roaring by with their sirens going off. I thought to myself “Can I not go anywhere in this damn town without it being so loud?”

I didn’t know at the time that those emergency vehicles were headed to the WTC. I couldn’t get the ‘peace’ I desired because those vehicles were headed off to try to save people. I couldn’t hit the buttons on my phone to check my voice mail because the WTC had been hit and as a result just about all forms of phone communication had gone down. Shortly after, the WTC went down, too. I was riddled with guilt for months – I still feel it sometimes – for the petty things I let myself get irritated over. It was not a big deal I couldn’t check my voice mail. It wasn’t a huge deal that breakfast wasn’t so great. What was a big deal was what was going in Lower Manhattan. If only I’d known, I’d never have acted so petty over the little things that morning.

Ever since that day, I’ve talked often to friends and family about the daily problems we all wrestle with, and have advised them to try and put those things in their proper perspective. So many things we worry over are, in the big scheme of things, not worth the time and energy we expend to worry over. Of course, I’m not talking about life or death situations, but things like how long it’s taking the waiter to bring you your food at a restaurant, or the long lines you have to wait in on days like today, when everyone is out shopping the Labor Day sales, or when some guy cuts you off at the redlight, or when you can’t check your voice mail due to unforseen circumstances and it’s driving you nuts. These things are really too meaningless to get upset over, when you think about it, yet so many of us will sit there and fume and/or glare at the offending person/object. Or we’ll stew over it in the privacy of our cars, home, or at work.

I’m writing this today because over the course of the last year, both my mom and dad’s sides of the family have seen more and more losses. They are mostly distant relatives who I wasn’t close to, but all the same, it’s a reminder that 1) my mom and dad are getting older and of course the family is going to experience more losses as they age and along with that, 2) it’s a reminder of my mom and dad’s mortality, which I don’t particularly want to contemplate, 3) that it’s important to treat life as a gift which we should enjoy to the fullest, and, most importantly, appreciate and not take for granted, and 4) that if you are a believer, as I am, you should continue to grow in your understanding of God, and to be aware that He is in control, and that you should rest contentedly in that knowledge.

Today, my dad visited an aunt and uncle, both of whom have cancer, and one of whom (aunt) only has a few months to live. Granted, they are both in their mid 80s and have lived a full life, but all the same, knowing what they are going through has once again made me think about how trivial so many things are that we worry about, because they’re just not that important. If we spent less time worrying, and a lot more time living, our lives would be so much more fulfilling – emotionally, physically, spiritually …

I worry so much about things beyond my control, and at the same time there’s so much I want to do with my life that I’ve held myself back from experiencing out of little more than fear of the unknown. The older I get, the more I realize how much of a hindrance these (mostly) irrational fears have been to me living life to the fullest. Don’t get me wrong – I’m happy with my life, but it’s easy to get too “comfortable” in the daily routine without challenging myself, and there’s a restlessness inside of me that has grown with each year, a restlessness the origins of which I can’t exactly pinpoint. I figure by the time I hit 40, I’m going to dip into the ol’ savings account and take some time off to do some extensive traveling, or perhaps buy a motorcycle, take some classes in painting or photography, or just, heck, – do something that takes me beyond my “comfort zone.”

In the meantime, the struggle continues to make myself not sweat the small stuff, while at the same time trying my hardest to let go of the fears that hold me back from getting the utmost fulfillment out of life. I’m one of those people who love giving advice to other people in an effort to try and get them out of a quandary, but find it hard to take my own advice when the situation warrants it. Like, I can see so clearly when talking to someone who is fretting about taking a risk – I generally will tell them to “Just do it! You only live once.” Yet more often than not won’t take that same advice myself, mostly out of fear. I hate being afraid. Especially when I know the fear I have is one that was, in most cases, brought on internally, not by outside events. I know I only have one life to live, shouldn’t let myself get worked up over little things, and should throw caution to the wind and quit holding myself back from so much I want to do in life, but all of that is easier said than done. I know I’m not the only person who feels like this, but when I look around me, sometimes I feel as though I am.

I didn’t have a particular direction I wanted to go with this piece, but I wanted to write about it anyway as it was something weighing heavily on my mind. Thanks for listening to me “think out loud.”

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10 Responses to “Labor Day musings, and putting things into perspective”


  1. I just wish I’d check your entries a bit sooner – before I wrote and sent what you should have received by now. Oh well, I’m convinced already: chapters are a good idea.

    Sweating the small stuff, though admittedly useless and counterproductive in the end, can sometimes be an acceptable safety valve.

    My 9/11 experience was rather different, even though I was in a much distant place. I didn’t curse my phone operator, I didn’t hear emergency vehicles: my phone rang, I picked it up, and heard the anguished voice of my Mom saying: “Have you seen? The Americans are being attacked!”

    I turned the TV on, and dove into a hellish televised loop for the rest of the day. The repeated images of the planes plunging in the towers were as many spears in my chest, and I will never forget the wild mix of agony and white anger at the sight of the “jumpers” falling to their death.

    I could have killed the men responsible, without a flinch, that day. Nearly 6 years on, I’m not appeased, and know that I won’t be appeased – deep inside my bones, I know I could still kill them without hesitation. This is the greatest infamy and the greatest injustice of the age, and it has only been partially repaid as far as I’m concerned.

    This day changed me forever, and turned a rather freewheeling, easy going guy – “live and let live” type – into someone with a, shall we say, sharper view of the world – and far less illusions on the nature and rarity of Evil. Well thank you bin Laden.

    Many people around me didn’t share that experience, mostly because they didn’t have access to a TV set when it happened, and only caught up with the news in the evening. Most of them simply don’t care. Some of the tallest and greatest buildings in the world destroyed, 3,000 lives lost at the hands of religious fanatics hacking their way to a global caliphate but hey, what’s for dinner tonight?

    And that’s only the careless ones – then you have the jubilating anti-Americans, who grin or laugh at the memory of 9/11.

    I know this is not the main point of your post (and I rather touch that in private anyway), but all I mean here is that sometimes, sweating the small stuff helps getting the mind off those things that could *really* get to you.

    The mind’s safety valve if you will.

  2. ruth says:

    Sister Toldjah—I am rereading an old book which seems to address your quandry. This is the passage, picked up from a discussion of youth growing up and wanting out.

    When the young thing has ripened, he becomes discontented, he wants to get out. Too often he is reproached as ungrateful, and is a grief to his parents who “have done everythig for him.” That is silly, for this is no discontent of captiousness, discontent against details. It is something more noble; rather a dissatisfaction with things as they are, with himself as he is. When we perceive clearly its significnce, we turn the word inside out, and rename it ambition. Then it becomes admirable: but it is discontent just the same. And it can always be recognized because its state is of discomfort. Resentfully, always, we grope for comfort. We are yet to learn that comfort is not stable, but must be constantly recaptured.

    As a race we follow that instinct fairly well. Whether we express it to ourselves or not, we do recognize tht the fettered family is pathological. We approve the restlessness of ambitious youth. But curiously enough we fail to recognize exactly the same thing when it works on us in later yers. When, at that time, the old formless unrest once again stirs our spirits–causelessly it may seem–we resent, or we endure. We have not learned this lesson of youth, which is that our discontents are among our most valuable gifts from life. They are not to be resented or endured. They are to be examined. And examination, if we are vitally intelligent, results in our doing something about it. Which, in turn, means a new venturing. Curious that we can see this only in retrospect. Curious that we are able to smile so indulgetly at the fevered blind rebellions of our adolescence, seeing them clearly for what they were, and yet fail to see that our present case is no different.

    ACROSS THE UNKNOWN by S.W. White and H. White 1939

    I must say that I have passed thru this ‘restless’ stage fairly often over the years so it is not a one time thing. The fact that you have this blog indicates that you are not static but have already created a niche for yourself, which is needed and appreciated by those who read it. Caution is not fear and sometimes we do have to endure until the timing for bumping out of our comfort zone is suitable. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us, I appreciate your blog and now know you a little better.

  3. Leslie says:

    Beautiful, ST!

    As you know, I saw the first plane, flying eerily low, on my way to work, on a crystal clear day with the wind blowing north by northwest, and wondered why.

    It was primary day, and just before I saw the plane, I saw a man with a sign for one of the long-forgotten candidates who ran that day. (Rudy would postpone the primary; it was finally held two weeks later.) The man was parading up Broadway to the 79th St. subway station, moving the sign up and down vertically. I passed him by, and then I saw the plane.

    And when I found out what happened I recalled the opening lines of Samuel Delany’s “Dhalgren.”

    to wound the autumnal city.
    So howled out for the world to give him a name.
    The in-dark answered with wind.

    And soon, from the safety of my office five miles north of ground zero, I saw the people dazedly walking uptown.

    And I thought of Jim Morrison: “The soft parade has now begun.”

    And here we are, coming up on year six, and September 11 is a Tuesday again. But this year there are no primaries.

  4. Dissident Frogman: You make some good points about sweating the small stuff being a safety valve of sorts. I confess I never thought of it that way, but viewed from that perspective, I could certainly feel less guilty over some of the things I worry about. And I feel safe in saying that many of us here identify with your feelings about 9-11. Well said, ami.

    So good to see you here, by the way! To my readers: please consider bookmarking/blogrolling DF. He’s a fantastic Frenchman with a great sense of humor who loves the US and (as you can see from his comment here) is solidly on our side in the war on terror, among many other issues important to conservatives here in the US.

    Ruth: Thanks for the book passage. That does sound a lot like what I’m going through. I guess in some ways we all get content for periods of time in our lives, but after a certain point get restless and thirst for more and yearn to figure out ways to satisfy that desire. It’s certainly not a bad thing, the desire to step out of your comfort zone, but it is not good when you allow fear to keep you from doing so. That’s what I have to work on. I know it’s a little early for New Year’s resolutions, but I’m declaring mine right here and now in advance ;)

    Leslie: There are a lot of things about 9-11 which I will never forget, and one of them is reading your essay at the forum (upon my return) of what you witnessed that day. I often think of what New Yorkers such as yourself go through every day as you’re bound to hear about, if not, see daily reminders of what happened. I read the NYT piece today on the question of whether or not we should “move on” from commemorating 9-11 with a mixture of shock and anger. It amazes me that there are people out there who simply want to forget what happened, as if we, as a country, ever could – or should.

  5. stackja says:

    The US survived Pearl Harbor.
    The US has so far survived 9/11.
    In God We Trust.

  6. camojack says:

    I figure by the time I hit 40, I’m going to dip into the ol’ savings account and take some time off to do some extensive traveling, or perhaps buy a motorcycle, take some classes in painting or photography, or just, heck, – do something that takes me beyond my “comfort zone.”

    If you do decide to ride, please do yourself a favor…take the motorcycle safety course. It’s free in most (all?) states, and well worth it. Don’t learn how stupid (and blind!!!) other drivers can be the hard way, like old Jack; it can prove fatal. It nearly was for me once, back in ’96…

  7. Steve Skubinna says:

    On one of my ships a newly arrived Ops Officer was complaining about her leading Chief Petty Officer, that he never seemed to get worked up and always maintained a steady state. In her universe that was bad, I guess. Perhaps where she came from screaming, arm-flapping panic was a sign that you took a situation seriously.

    I pointed out that the guy’s previous tour had been in EOD. She hadn’t known that. We can speculate what sort of officer she was if outsiders knew more about the personal histories of her department members, but that’s not the point.

    She was puzzled, what did being former EOD have to do with anything? I answered,

    “Well, he probably figures that if a problem isn’t going to literally explode it isn’t worth getting worked up over, and if it is going to explode then getting worked up is the wrong way to approach it. Either way, frantic excitement isn’t useful.”

  8. Steve Skubinna says:

    Okay, I guess I left that last one hanging. What I mean is, don’t sweat the small stuff. And the big stuff? It’s too important to waste time sweating over, just tackle it.

  9. forest hunter says:

    Steve S: ……..clear as a bell to me. I once had a short conversation with my Gunny when ordered to *get a handle* on four wayward souls in our platoon, that ended with me saying to him, “don’t sweat the small stuff……it’s all small stuff”. He was curious as to how I would go about about the *gettin’ it done* part and I/they hadn’t made up my/their mind yet.

  10. Great White Rat says:

    ST, thanks for a thoughtful and powerful post. It particularly hit home for me, as my experience was similar.

    Our company puts all managers and salesmen through a four-day class on sales techniques. As a newly-minted technical manager, I was placed into the course beginning on September 11, 2001. It was held at the Newark Airport Hilton, right across the highway from where UA Flight 93 departed that morning.

    As a techie, sales training was anathema to me (still is, actually). I arrived at about 7:30am and spent the first part of the day griping about the inconvenience and uselessness of being there. About 9am, while we were getting coffee during our first break, my counterpart from the Chicago office broke the news to us. For the rest of the morning, we did little except cluster around the TVs in the lounge area. Or watch it live from windows in rooms on the upper floors.

    The drive home that night took me past the entrance ramps to Newark Airport. Every one of them was blocked by a snowplow – probably the heaviest readily available vehicle – and at least two State Police cruisers. And the police weren’t in the vehicles. Every trooper was standing with rifles at the port. There was no possible way anyone was going to get near the airport that night. About then it hit me. A few thousand people had been murdered. Right about the time I was grumbling about being in a sales course, some of them were making their last phone calls home to say good bye to their families. That’s perspective, as ST says.

    And that was before I knew that two people from my church were 9/11 attack victims – one made it out of Tower One, the other is among the 3000 dead.

    So I guess what I’m trying to say is that this was a real lesson about not worrying about little things that will have no ultimate bearing on your life. Not when we face so many other, more important personal and national tasks.