There’s lots that could be said on today’s anniversary, but the one piece that stood out to me is in The Atlantic — On 9/11, Luck Meant Everything: When the terrorist attacks happened, trivial decisions spared people’s lives—or sealed their fate. I don’t want to copy/paste the whole article here, so I’ll just include the paragraphs that hammer the point home:
In researching my new book, The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11, I’ve spent the past three years reading and listening to thousands of personal stories from that Tuesday—stories from Americans all across the country and people far beyond our shores. In all those published accounts and audio clips, and in the interviews I conducted, one theme never ceases to amaze me: the sheer randomness of how the day unfolded, who lived, who died, who was touched, and who escaped. One thousand times a day, we all make arbitrary decisions—which flight to book, which elevator to board, whether to run an errand or stop for coffee before work—never realizing the possibilities that an alternate choice might have meant. In the 18 years since 9/11, each of us must have made literally 1 million such decisions, creating a multitude of alternate outcomes we’ll never know.
Randomness giveth and randomness taketh away. Some folks have a hard time believing in fate, believing that life is predestined. And to their credit, what fun would that be, if every decision you were going to make were already made for you. That you were just following some preordained plan. To others, this brings comfort. They like the idea that there’s someone or something watching over them and the rest of the world. I remember being asked the question many years ago, “Do you believe in free will or fate?” With a wry grin, I responded something to the effect of, “Hmmm, I believe that we have free will to choose to believe in fate.”
In both the Pentagon and New York, fate played a key role in the escapes. Army Lieutenant Colonel Rob Grunewald was sitting in a conference room with his colleagues when American Airlines Flight 77 hit. “The plane came into the building and went underneath our feet, literally, by a floor,” he said later. “Where everybody went and how they get out of the room is very unique, because those are where decisions are made that are fatal, or cause injury, or cause mental fatigue, or great consternation. A bunch of my officemates that were in that meeting went in one direction and unfortunately didn’t make it. The person that sat to my right, the person that sat to my left apparently went out the door and took a right, and they went into the E-Ring, where they apparently perished. A decision to go in one direction or another was very important.” For his part, Grunewald paused for a minute to rescue a colleague, Martha Cardin, and thus was just a few steps behind the others leaving the damaged conference room. In the smoke, he and Cardin turned left instead of right—a decision that saved their lives.
It is darn near impossible to know when things like this will happen and more importantly, to know when a seemingly innocuous decision to return to your hotel room to change your shirt can save your life (and change the course of your fated history or keep you on the path of your fated history). So, how can we live in a world like this? How do we reconcile? How do we make peace with making decisions in our day-to-day? How do we know when to go left and when to go right?
There are any number of ways to answer that question. The answer that’s most congruent for me — and the answer that I wish more of us chose — requires an internal alignment with ourselves. It requires knowing ourselves and trusting ourselves.
There’s a new podcast that’s come out recently called, “Meditative Story.” It shares compelling first-person stories from people talking about a time in their life when everything changed for them. There’s one episode in particular I want to highlight here and it comes from Arianna Huffington (yes, that Arianna Huffington).
In it, she’s talking about growing up in Greece. She was thumbing through a magazine and she saw a picture of Cambridge. The moment she saw it, she knew — that was where she was meant to go. There was something inside of her, something that knew, that’s where she was supposed to be next. This, from a young woman who didn’t speak a lick of English, knowing that she’s supposed to go to a university on the other side of Europe. Details, small details.
Of course, she would go on to do the work to get herself there, but the part I want to focus on here is the alignment. When she saw the picture, something inside of her recognized a part of what her future could be — Cambridge. There was something about seeing that picture that sparked something inside of her. While it’s probably a bit much to ask for us to operate on this level on a day-to-day basis all the time (but maybe not?), part of me wishes that we could, at a minimum, increase the frequency with which we all tap into this part of ourselves to make decisions.