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That’s where I need to be on the next anniversary, September 11, 2020.
It’s really borderline unforgiveable that I haven’t made the trip in the past 18 years, especially considering that I’ve been an activist for the 9/11 Truth movement since 2010 and that there isn’t a day that goes by when that tragedy doesn’t still haunt me as I do my part to expose the lie of what we were told happened that day.
But 9/11 Truth is not the topic.
I haven’t gone to Ground Zero because going anywhere outside of my established routine parameter is extremely difficult for me, and the further the destination, the more unfamiliar the journey, the less I feel capable of handling the trip. It’s simplistic to refer to it as agoraphobia because it’s so much more complex than that, but it’s difficult to put into words a fear you’ve had for so long you can’t even imagine a life without it.
For a long time, it was my guarded secret, shared with only a trusted inner circle. And don’t get me wrong – I’m not opening up about this under the pretense of “If I can help just one person”. This is a purely selfish act. A way for me to start getting past this demon that has handicapped me forever – by exposing it.
I can go weeks without giving it much thought when my daily movements remain confined to my regular surroundings. But there are no guarantees, and I’ve had unexpected attacks sneak up on me even then, like on my drive to work when we hit a sudden standstill on the autoroute, with no exit ramp in sight. Longer drives – as in more than an hour – come with more apprehension and require a lot of mental prep, while anything that involves additional vehicles or layovers becomes exponentially challenging. As fate would have it, my mother lives in Austria, so there’s a trip I look forward to regularly. It is usually preceded by psychological nausea and an inability to ingest much of anything for days prior. As far as a diet plan, it has real potential – schedule regular trips with varying degrees of difficulty and I should be at my model-size weight in no time at all.
And it usually ends up fine, as my track record for making it through each situation currently stands at 100%. But to me, that’s irrelevant. I’d like to be able to not even think about it. White-knuckling it, in my view, doesn’t count for much. Having dodged an actual panic attack is nothing to write home about if I spent 3 days worrying about the trip and another 12 hours during it.
And let’s quickly define panic attack. You can imagine it, right? Shaking, becoming agitated, sweating, crying, gasping for air, possibly physically lashing out, right?
Well, it’s nothing like that. At least not on the outside. Or at least not for me. From your vantage point, you probably couldn’t even tell.
Inside, it’s a different world. An implosion more than an explosion. Paralysis. I start physically shutting down my senses and disconnecting from all my surroundings. Even if I’m at the wheel, I have to retreat into a space where I can’t be reached. I have to NOT be in that moment. I feel so vulnerable that I feel aggressed by every scent, every sound, every sensation. I can’t breathe, my heart is beating to my ears, and the odd tear you see is not actual crying, but rather the result of the overwhelming physical pressure exerted by the fear. Fear of being trapped. Of not being able to get out. Of losing control. Of somehow not making it to the destination. It’s not rational. I didn’t say it was. It never is.
And ultimately fear of being judged. The funny thing is I have no other fears, really, in terms of judgment. I have strong opinions and am not afraid to stand up for them. I have critical views and always welcome anyone willing to challenge them. I feel strongly and I love deeply, and I express my love, my affection and my passion with little worry of how it will be received. I have odd interests and unconventional ways of doing things, and I make no apologies for any of them.
I also have many shortcomings which I fully embrace. I feel no particular need to be right, or be liked, or to get some kind of weird stamp of approval. If you’re in my life, I trust it’s for all the good reasons.
But this - it’s just in another realm.
I’ve often wondered why it is even spoken of in terms of “mental” affliction when fear is so intensely emotional. Never quite got that.
On the positive side, I haven’t let this anxiety prevent me from doing those things that truly mattered – visiting family and friends, going to concerts, spending a summer day at the water slides or our Six Flags park (hail the roller coaster as therapy in and of itself). I always bring along my figurative crutches and safety nets. At a concert, I’m close to an exit. In a movie theatre, or on a plane, I’ll always secure the aisle seat. I scan any new place as if I were the Terminator, robotically assessing potential hazards and exit strategies. It gives me the illusion of security.
So I try to not let it rule my life. But I’m sure it has stopped me from doing things I wrote off as unimportant, and in so doing missed out on some unexpected good times, or discoveries, or new connections. And although it has also led me to love being alone – nothing like being a 17-year old at home on a Saturday night, writing songs, or letters, or in her diary (yup! still have 'em!) while all your friends are partying – I know it came at a price.
But I’m tired. I don’t want to put stuff on standby anymore and justify it by insisting it’s not that necessary, or essential, or worth it. Life is short.
Therefore, Ground Zero it is.
I have no idea how I will get there yet as the logistics still need to be determined. In a perfect world I would do this with someone I fully trust to handle a meltdown, should it occur. Someone who has my back, no matter what happens. Someone who makes me feel like it’s ok if we need to make a 180 back home four hours into the drive. That kind of trust.
But I’m also not taking THAT trip, out of all trips, with someone who is not at least as passionate about 9/11 Truth as I am, and the Venn diagram of people who intersect has nobody I know in that center. So I guess I’m going it alone, which is just as well.
2020. This is the year everything changes. And sticking my head out of the anxiety closet, even just partway, is a pretty good start.
Does magic exist?
The answer, of course, says more about our personalities and perceptions than any about any factual reality – the kind that you would back up with evidence, measurable results and predictable outcomes.
The Pollyannas of the world will happily come down on the “yes” side, whereas the cynics will evidently snub the very idea. And while it’s true that some see wonder in everything and tend to ascribe meaning to the most mundane events, others just view the universe as a random sequence of unrelated happenings that loosely intersect, with the chips falling where they may.
And it’s true: most of us don’t experience outrageous miracles, the kind you read about or see unfold on TV - winning the lottery, making it through to the next round of American Idol, getting the call to go play for the New York Yankees. Those are no doubt memorable moments for those who experience them, but as you are understandably thinking - these are also one-in-a-million cases and have nothing to do with our boring, daily lives, right?
While most of us are not aiming for fame or being seen on world stages, we do crave the high of something extraordinary happening to us and tend to go looking for it in very twisted and unhealthy ways. But I’d like to suggest that this is not necessary, and that all you need to do is temporarily adjust the parameters of the space-time continuum you operate in to discover that, like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, you had the power all along. In this case, to see your life as the full-scale miracle that it has been and continues to be.
And here’s how.
Take your best friend. The one you confide in, lean on, cry to, laugh with. The one you’ve known for years, and with whom you’ve experienced the ups and downs of life. The one you’ve done a million things with, or maybe just a handful of significant things.
Now try to remember when that person first came across your radar, the very first time you became aware of him or her. Your initial impression. It may have been neutral, just like it may have been love or, surprisingly often, disdain at first sight. Regardless. Now imagine someone telling you, at THAT very moment, while you’re still sizing up this stranger: “You are looking at the person will become your closest friend, the one you are still going to know 20, 30, 50 years from now, and you will be at each others’ sides during all the important milestones of your lives.”
Wouldn’t that be something? Wouldn’t it feel absolutely “wow”? Would it not almost be overwhelming, as you’re trying to picture how on earth you guys will go from here – just being vaguely aware of each other’s existence – to there – laughing about the “old times” that are at this point still in utero?
Do the same exercise with your kids. You most certainly remember the day they were born - a screaming lump of tininess, served on a blank slate. Imagine being told THAT DAY what would become of him or her - character traits, interests, abilities, quirks, the challenges they will overcome. Would that not boggle the mind?
Imagine any situation, really. The kid born and raised in Hicktown, USA, being told that he will spend the rest of his adult life in bustling New York. The adopted child being told that he will finally meet his blood relatives at age 56. The drug addict being told that he will not only kick the habit but become a counsellor to other addicts. The business student being told that he will make a living off drawing cartoons one day.
And on a sociological level, what about the still-in-the-closet teen being told in 1989 that same-sex marriage will be possible in his lifetime? Kids in 2005 finding out that cannabis will be legal to smoke within a few years?
All those eventual outcomes are on standby, waiting to play out over the years; we just don’t, and can’t, know about them yet. But it would certainly seem magical to get a sneak preview. Hence the fascination with fortune-telling: being told of a development that is currently inconceivable comes with a lot of awe, even if by the time it materializes it almost feels normal, or par for the course.
And it feels normal because these things develop in increments, in tiny, difficult-to-measure and even more difficult to objectively assess fractions of moments. But that shouldn’t make them less impressive. This IS the jackpot. The people you love and are lucky to have around you, despite the admittedly terrible odds. The job you have. Your home. Everything you are passionately involved in. Your achievements. The hardships you’ve overcome. Your life circumstances. Think back to a time when they were not even a blip on your screen, and imagine finding out about how they will one day be part of your life's DNA.
Getting there can require effort and make the path feel more like an obstacle course rather than a direct line, and truth be told, many days probably won’t feel very magical. But you don’t get there by accident. You will have had an active hand in most of the outcomes, as you initially had to strike up a conversation with that stranger so that (s)he would become your friend, or your mate, or the parent of your children. You had to apply for that job before you got the interview, the callback, and the position. You had to draw on resources you didn’t know you had in order to get through some tough times in life. You even had to go to the store to buy that lottery ticket.
And speaking of lottery tickets, obviously some outcomes are not up to you, as an element of luck really is involved. At other times the outcome is out of your hands because it requires someone else – an actual person - to be on the same page as you, and feel the same way as you, be it about a relationship, or a job, or an idea. No matter. Just because it doesn’t play out the way you had hoped doesn’t mean it won’t lead to new places that become just as magical, and sometimes even more so. Even an event as tragic as a miscarriage leads you to the realization that you would have never had the child you ended up giving birth to had it not been for the tragic initial loss.
I don’t subscribe to “everything happens for a reason” or that certain things were “meant to be”. It’s what people say to make sense of the universe, or not feel so out of control. But when you look at everything it took, everything that needed to happen and fall into place for you to be where you are right now, then it’s difficult NOT to see it as at least semi-miraculous.
So fast forward to today, when - assuming you are not currently on your death bed - so much more of this magic still lies ahead. The people you haven’t yet met. The good times that are waiting. The book that will change your life. The cause you will want to fight for. The aha moments you will have. The places you’ve only visited in your dreams. The obstacles you never thought you could overcome. The good deeds that will help a person in need. Reconciling with people from your past. The new chapter of your career. Victories, small and large. A hobby you’d never considered. The person you will fall madly, passionately, deeply in love with, no matter your past, and no matter your age.
Trust in God, but do your part. If you are not where you would choose to be if you were on the outside looking in, then take the risk. Open your eyes. Open your mind. Open your soul, and make something happen.
So that by the time you ARE on your death bed, you can look back and see the big picture of interwoven magic threads that brought you here and became part of your life story, leaving no doubt that you made the most of every precious day on earth.
I don’t mean about what you planned to wear on Tuesday, or that time you ordered pizza instead of Chinese. Forget even more serious matters, such as considering a new career path, or cutting ties with certain people in your life.
I mean, rather, about a point of view. A belief. Your perspective. Those things that, although they don’t – or shouldn’t - define you, in essence reflect the person you are.
I can’t say I’ve ever heard anyone fess up to being close-minded. Being a slob? Sure. Lazy? Often. Having a temper? Yes, even having a temper. But being close-minded? Nosireebob, nobody wants to be that. When it comes to our tolerance, you would think we are all just a happy bunch of free-spirited hippies who are fully accepting of all human beings and ideas.
There are levels of open-mindedness of course, and, just so we’re clear, “I’m not racist but…” doesn’t fall under any category. And because it’s what racist people say when they can’t acknowledge being racist, they are in no position to change their mind about it.
Others come with a disclaimer, like the tired and overused “I’ve got nothing against gays, as long as they don’t hit on me.” Yeah, no, that’s not QUITE the open-mindedness we were shooting for, but I guess it’s a step up from shouting slurs through a megaphone at the LGBTQ parade.
So let’s focus on those who are generally quite open and accepting of people from all walks of life, those who won’t treat you differently based on your skin colour, gender, age, culture or sexual orientation. Those who are genuinely fond of human beings and believe that we are all equal. Chances are, even they will admit to reacting defensively when the issue at stake touches on long-held beliefs or world views, with certain subjects hitting a particularly raw nerve. The death penalty, abortion, climate change, euthanasia, gun control, war, immigration, the legalization of drugs are all sensitive issues, and with good reason. We don’t so much want to be right as we need to be right, because, as rational as we think we are, we are deeply emotionally invested in our beliefs, which is why very few discussions involve a factual, objective analysis of the pros and cons of either side, and fewer still result in a re-assessment of one’s convictions.
Much of our inner compass is formed by our early environment on an unconscious level. Our parents tell us, and model for us, what is right and wrong, and often tell us what to think. We are, for the most part, not encouraged to look at various facets of an issue, to question things, to form an outside opinion and arrive at a personal conclusion. We are certainly not encouraged to challenge our parents’ views, which would be seen as a threat, and to run counter to them could result in undesirable consequences, like withdrawal of affection or straight-up punishment. And so we learn that to be loved, we need to conform, and we internalize these viewpoints, and convince ourselves that we have come to these conclusions freely and of our own volition.
With this ingrained code of ethics, we then go into the world instinctively looking to connect with people reflecting similar values, thus finding our tribe, a group of like-minded individuals who make us feel normal and accepted, and sometimes feed our sense of superiority over those who think differently. The weaker the self-esteem, the stronger the dynamic.
Like our parents, we in turn feel threatened by any idea that runs counter to our belief system. We fear being wrong, and therefore rejected and outcast and somehow diminished. Being wrong feels like admitting defeat, while sticking to our guns, insisting on being right, almost becomes a matter of survival, and so we stay the course.
We don’t do that to ourselves when it comes to that career change, or cutting ties to toxic people. There, we can freely, happily, own our decision to make a change, and at no point do we feel that this reflects on us as having been wrong, or bad, or less worthy. We can happily admit that there was a time when that job, or that friendship, had a reason for being, but that, over time, transformations took place that have now brought us to a new place and time, making us seek conditions that are in sync with who we are now.
Yet, when it comes to our beliefs, it is a whole other story. We get defensive and lash out, when in fact we should embrace the challenge. Having someone question where we stand forces us to make a solid case for ourselves. We may come out of it with a renewed sense of conviction or come to realize that a view that had value 25, 10, even 2 years ago, needs to be re-adjusted in light of new information, or a new perspective. But if we are truly confident, if our position is solid, it will withstand the strongest counter arguments, and if it’s not, then it deserves to be dismantled, and not begrudgingly, but with a tipped hat, and congratulations. It’s a battle of wits minus the ego.
We’re not talking about changing your mind like your underwear – same symptoms, different result. But to allow for our mind to be open enough to hear another person out and to give credit where credit is due, to be happy to see our beliefs tested and challenged and find out what are really made of, and to realize that we simply don’t have a horse in the race – not because we don’t have a horse but because there’s no race – that is good stuff.
So when did I last change my mind?
It was a few months ago. A friend and I were discussing organ donation. As a strong supporter, I was thrilled to hear about countries making the practice mandatory, meaning that rather than consenting to organ donation by signing your card, you actually had to opt out if you did not wish for your organs to be removed. I thought this was terrific, as there is such a lack of donors, and such a dire need for organs. This was for the greater good, after all, how could anyone possibly argue?
And then my friend asked “But why should organ donation be the default?” I wasn’t sure I understood. “I mean, why isn’t the default to leave the body untouched? Why is it incumbent upon the individual to make sure that his or her body is NOT invaded? The default should be the natural state of the dead body. Any amendment to that should need to be consented to.”
And he was right. Mandatory organ donation was essentially forcing someone’s hand – either by making them donate, or by making them have to ensure they don’t.
I’d always been the first one to say that right and wrong were principles that could not be altered according to benefits, or risks, or popularity, and this was no different. So I re-adjusted my position. Not joyfully, I might add. I would much rather that there be an abundance of organs available for anyone who needs one. But that just means that we need to double down on our efforts to educate people, encourage them to sign those cards, help them see the benefit, and take the fear out of them thinking a misdiagnosis might lead to the removal of their organs when they could instead still wake up and return to a full, happy, healthy life. More work, really, but not a lost cause.
Changing one’s mind about one’s beliefs shouldn’t be as simplistic as ordering pizza instead of Chinese, but there is no reason it can’t be just as simple. And it’s quite liberating to be able to say “I guess I never looked at it that way before!” and shrug, and see that life goes on, not only not weakened, but strengthened by a new perspective.
I strongly recommend people try it, every once in a while.
I very much wanted to be the Badass. You know – the one from Jen Sincero’s book, “You are a Badass”, a motivational effort aimed at making you believe that nothing is impossible, that your magical powers are simply waiting to be tapped into and that the life you are dreaming of is completely within your grasp if only you tweak a few things, like your entire mental DNA.
And who can resist getting sucked into the positivity of this can-do approach, of believing we are invincible, capable of achieving the loftiest of goals by putting everything on the line in return for the proverbial pot of gold?
Of course, it’s easy to fall prey to the enchantress whispering in our ear that we are up to the task. After all, when was the last time we were truly encouraged? And by that I don’t mean the tepid I-know-you-can-do-it pats on the back from the co-worker trying to console us after a work meltdown, or strangers on social media deeming our comments worthy of a like-button. We so want to be able to identify with that mountain-moving image of ourselves that we get momentarily swept away, buying into the illusion that the author is addressing us – yes, us! – as if he or she truly knew our innermost selves. The words are so warm, and funny, and down-to-earth that we can almost be forgiven for such a moment of (let’s call it) weakness.
But the truth is we are woefully predictable. Imagine, if you will, a fake personality test inside a focus group with the results assigned to each participant in completely random fashion. As long as the overall feel was positive and not overly specific, with some traits made to sound personal, like they applied only to you - wink-wink - chances are that most people would likely identify with the character description. “You are a generous soul”, “your tastes are quite unique”, “you have a great sense of humour”, “you are trusting despite your initial scepticism”, “you can have trouble getting motivated”, “you feel misunderstood”, etc. One must almost be an alien to not feel like any of these statements fit in any way, shape or form. And who doesn’t want to believe they have a great sense of humour?
So here you are, reading this book, suddenly feeling very understood, and identifying with all these traits of potential greatness. We so desperately crave validation that we are willing to suspend all rational thought, our good common sense and the right we have earned to claim that we know ourselves better than some stranger who, frankly, has little more on the line than the few dollars he will make off the book you bought and that you will set aside as soon as you’re done with it in order to go back to your daily routine.
That is not to say that these authors are not sincere, or that they are not truly trying to help you get out of your rut. But they are not accountable, and there’s always that disclaimer – the one that implies that you have to want it enough – or else it won’t work, so it’s win-win for them, and status quo for us.
Because the truth is that most of us can’t or won’t be able to live out our ultimate dreams, and it belittles us to have examples waved in our faces of people – oftentimes the authors themselves – who started off with nothing, living out of an unheated one-room apartment and having to choose between breakfast, lunch and supper, yet somehow ended up with a beachfront mansion, a fancy car and a zoo of exotic pets. Of course, we are told that the dream need not be extravagant, and that if all you want is your little cupcake venture, then that’s just as good, but somehow it always comes back to your being able to rake in the millions doing exactly what you love if only you’re willing to go all the way.
So then how do you explain it to the person who has put in the effort, the time, the blood, sweat and tears, and still has nothing to show for? Do you tell her that the effort, while valiant, fell short of a couple of vials of blood and several beads of perspiration? That she simply didn’t believe in it quite enough? That she gave up too soon, even if she’s been at it for most of her adult life? That she wavered on her commitment when she was unwilling to quit the part-time job that was allowing her to pay the bills while she was working on her dream? That’s a bit of a copout. Is there never a time when one must accept that the dream has run its course and that it’s better to let it go? What about plainly unrealistic dreams, like that of the 5-ft-3 140-pounder who wants to play defense in football? Or people who want what they want for all the wrong reasons, like those who would rather be actors for the fame than for the love of the art? And what about inequality, for that matter? The aspiring doctor from a well-to-do family can easily afford not to work part-time while studying; the one from a low-income background can’t afford NOT to work while studying and may just have to make an excruciating choice.
Can people overcome the odds? Certainly. But many won’t, and it’s unfair to make people believe they can. Despite their best intentions, these types of authors border on disingenuous when they build the reader up and then leave him or her to deal with the fallout once the accumulation of life circumstances renders the wall too high to climb.
We all have baggage. We have responsibilities. We have handicaps. And we don’t live in a bubble – we are accountable to the people around us and we feel the need to respect those contracts of honour. We sacrifice parts of our selves, and try to find a balance between give and take, all of which takes a toll and puts a serious stick in our wheels at times. Maybe that’s why the message of “you can have it all” – one that basically gives us the green light to act selfishly - is so appealing.
But when all is said and done, I’d much rather read a book that encourages you to give all that you are willing to give within reason, as defined by you, and to do it with reckless joy despite the full awareness that it may not pan out – something that is in no way a reflection of your worth as a human being and certainly not a failure on your part. This frees you from any self-imposed expectations while saving you the regret of not having tried; you will have learned some new lessons, strengthened some mental and emotional muscles and made a ton of discoveries along the way. Not a loss by a long shot.
I’d much prefer a book that encourages you to take a chance, try something different, test the waters of the unfamiliar and see where it goes. It may lead you in a whole new direction, or it may bring you back to your starting point, with a renewed sense of appreciation for what you have. It may work out, or it may not, but that’s the thing – either result is fine. It’s not the obtaining it at all costs that is the goal here, it’s the trusting yourself to try, to be able to handle the outcome, whatever it may be, to be allowed to redefine your priorities should you change your mind, and the faith that you – YOU – know better than anyone who you are, what you want, what you need and how you define success.
You may not have all the answers - not right away, and maybe not for a while. You may not have the perfect plan, and you may not be operating under the most ideal conditions. Life is messy. But the important thing is to start with what you know with absolute certainty, and to do something today toward that goal. And then do it again tomorrow. And the day after that. We may have been misled into thinking that we are one big decision away from an entirely different life – which, really, seems a little daunting - when instead we can break it down to a succession of mini-decisions, none of which need to be perfect or written in stone, and you build it from there.
And in the end, who knows - you may just turn out be a Badass after all.
Sandra is a blogger, life coach and activist.