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Refocusing after the Planes Hit the Towers

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When the towers were hit almost 10 years ago, a group of us in my publishing-services company were in the middle of a two-day training session in a hotel conference room. It was the beginning of Day 2, and I was excited at how well it was going. The session leader was Dr. Martin Stankard. He had been working in the field of process improvement and systems thinking for decades.



You could tell that Martin loved his work. His face reddened with enjoyment while he talked, and his white hair set off the blush to great effect. He beamed when he talked about personal past experiences in quality improvement. He laughed a lot while answering questions. I think Day 2 started at 8:30 and Martin began with a reminder of our experience the day before. We had role-played a rather involved case study in systems thinking.

Shortly before 9:00 one of the editors who had gone to the restroom came back into the session room and announced that there was something happening in New York. An airplane had gone into a building. She had seen a TV news report on the way back from the restroom. This caused a little disruption, but Martin brought our attention back to him quickly. Someone else left the room, either to use the restroom or to check on the news, and came back to tell us about the second airplane hitting the other tower.

Martin tried to regain control of the room to continue his contracted session. He resumed speaking. One of the company’s vice presidents, sitting next to me, whispered in my ear. Her daughter lived in New York, and there was no way she (my VP) could just keep sitting here not knowing anything. She was going back to the office. I realized that was the end of the session, so I announced that we’d have to reschedule the second day, but for now we should all go back to the office. On the drive back, I looked up toward the blue sky and wondered if I’d be spotting enemy aircraft up there. That was something I’d never had to worry about before.

Martin called me the next day to say he had thought we were just overreacting at the time, but after 24 hours of news coverage and all that had happened, he knew we’d done the right thing. He and I talked about what this meant, about our loss of innocence as a country that had never been attacked in our lifetime. We talked about how long it had taken both of us to disengage from the session we had made happen, how long it had taken to refocus.

I guess that’s one of my “takeaways” from all this, almost 10 years later. That is, when you believe one thing (the world is good and supports you in your plans) and you have to accept the truth of an opposing thing (there are bad people and their own plans can drown yours), there’s a moment in time when you go into an interior space where such realizations are dealt with. It’s not a step-by-step, consciously followed path. It’s a cloud activity, and it grabs some time from you. In a sense, it was only a moment, but with the subsequent war on terror and the 10 years it took to bring bin Laden down, dealing with the realization has taken exactly that long.

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About Meredith Ann Rutter