That's "Exorcise," with an "O"

September 11, 2011 was a bad day for me.  We were living in Boston at the time, and I was working at a startup near MIT and Kendall Square.  The planes that crashed into the Twin Towers flew right over our heads just hours before they exploded in a fiery mess over lower Manhattan.  My colleagues and I lost friends, acquaintances, and classmates in a moment.  On top of that, we lived in the city that the terrorists chose as their launching pad, and that was something that every Bostonian took as a personal affront.  What was it about our city that made it so friendly to psychotic maniacs?  The only fanatacism we were willing to encourage had to do with a certain cursed baseball team.

Like everyone who was old enough to understand what was going on, I remember that day with painful clarity.  I remember where I was when I first heard about what was happening and I remember standing and watching the towers fall on television.  I remember the baffled amazement, the thought, "Why would anyone do this to anyone?  What makes this OK?"  I remember wanting to cry, to scream, to find some way to deal with this hurt and anger, some way to make it all right again.  I remember weeping before the TV news weeks later, hurting for those who lost family and friends in a moment of terror.

A few weeks after the attacks, a picture started circulating around the Internet, showing a cloud of smoke escaping from one of the towers that looked like a horned devil.  Some people took this as a supernatural sign that the Devil was there, laughing at us as he took a few thousand American lives.  I doubt that a photographer captured a supernatural manifestation -- I think the Devil's usually more subtle than that -- but I have no doubt about one thing: the demons won that day, and they've continued to press their victories for the decade since.

America has never really put that day behind us.  Even this past month, ten years later, we showed how those wounds are as raw as they were ten days after the event.  In many ways, our country has been shaped by that day for the last decade: we have entered into an endless war against the perpetrators and anyone we perceive to be their supporters, we regularly debate which freedoms are best to give up in the name of safety, and we have moved into a fear-based economy, where the best decision is the one that leads me away from danger rather than toward opportunity.

We all have demons, those things that we hate and fear, the moments in our lives that lurk forever in our memories, waiting to pounce on us in an unprotected moment.  Whether they're big, global demons, like the specter of another terrorist attack, or personal ones, like the fear that people really don't care for me and they're just waiting for me to fail, these demons sink their claws into our psyche and drive our behavior at a level that we can't even recognize, much less understand.  When they rear their heads, they either send us scurrying for the nearest shelter or launch us at other people in an unreasoning attack that is completely out of proportion to the situation at hand.  When we are grappling with our demons, we immediately cede all of the territory gained in 10,000 years of civilization and become little more than animals.

Some people realize this, of course, and cynically trigger the fears they see in others to get the reactions they want.  Rather than working to exorcise others' demons, they exercise them, parading them around before a cowering throng.  The tag line "do that and the terrorists win" was a perfect post-9/11 example of this behavior.  The fact that it worked to give George W. Bush a second term only exacerbated the problem.  Now, media players like Fox News have honed this exercise to a sinister art, spinning a narrative of fear, insecurity, and hate that was previously reserved for isolationists and armed cults. 

Let's be fair, of course: all of the news stations do it, as does any industry that makes money off of gaining attention: politicians, drug companies, health food stores, religions.  If they can use fear to get your money, then the temptation is powerful, precisely because it's so easy.  Fear may not be our smartest motivator, but it is clearly our strongest.  And while everyone doesn't stoop to fear-mongering and demon-marching, the ones who do get all the attention.

The problem with all this exercise, of course, is that it does what exercise does: it makes the demons stronger.  The more we focus on what we fear and hate, the more it dominates our thinking to the point that nothing else really exists.  It's basic brain design.  If I'm afraid of terrorists, then every face that's different from mine starts to hide evil thoughts.  If I'm afraid that my boss doesn't like me, then every conversation becomes laden with veiled threats and opportunities for offense.  I can't help myself.

Nor can I drive the demons out with anger, posturing, or blustering threats.  They feed off of that energy, growing bigger and stronger even as I seek to drive them out.  Are we safer, more secure, and happier since we started two wars and locked down our methods of mass transportation?  Did hiding or locking all of the garbage cans in public places make us statistically less likely to be attacked, or did it just provide a constant reminder of everything that we're afraid of?

I have a counter-proposal: let's try to love our demons to death.  Rather than attacking the things we fear, what if we poured that energy into action in the exact opposite direction?  I think that we can exorcise them for real simply by canceling them out.

I actually know that this works, because I've done it.  Here's an example: years ago, I worked with someone who actively sought to undermine me at every step.  If I said go right, she demurely nodded, then immediately told everyone that left was really the better option as soon as I left the room.  If I asked her about it, she insisted that it was someone else's idea, but that he'd made some very cogent points as to why left might be the better option in this case.  If I called her on this behavior, she cried, which as all big men know is the ultimate weapon because it immediately turns us into bullies and mysogynists, even in our own minds.  She became my personal Al-Qaeda, striking from the shadows but melting away whenever I turned to face her.

Being the direct person that I am, my first instinct was to confront this behavior head-on with a logical argument, which only escalated the problem.  Now I was wrong and mean.  I was losing my team and starting to wonder if it wouldn't be easier just to find another job.  So one night, while driving home, I decided to try a different approach.  Rather than resisting this person, I decided that I would help her.  This wasn't altruism, it was desperation.  Since nothing else had worked, why not make it Opposite Day and see what happened?

In brief, it worked.  This person, who had seen me as a threat to her job and acted to defend her territory, saw that I was only trying to make things better and started to help me.  When I realized that we needed to completely change our approach and try something that the organization had never done before, she became my staunchest ally, whipping her own team into line before I could even get to them.  We became friends, and when I moved on, she was first in line to wish me well.  This time, if there were tears in her eyes it was because she was going to miss me.

My own demons drove me in this situation.  I wasn't sure that anyone trusted me to do my job, and I acted aggressively when someone questioned me.  I still struggle with that.  But when I turned around and counter-balanced those fears with a sort of trusting benevolence, they lost all their strength.  Soon, they were gone.

As a country, we've been lashing out at everything that frightens us for a decade now.  It's time to try something new.  Let's start by recognizing that, while these demons are real, the only power they have is that which we give them.  Then, let's start pushing in the opposite direction.

Back to 9/11 for a moment, but this time in 2011.  The ten-year anniversary hit me hard.  I avoided all of the media retrospectives, but I couldn't avoid the moment in church when they played a brief memorial video.  I wept when I saw the towers fall all over again, and I felt the same ache in my gut that I felt ten years ago, as if no time had passed.  But when I left the church I decided to do something to fill that darkness with light.  I went to IHOP and I bought breakfast for about 100 strangers, then I left and went to Starbucks and bought coffee for another 50 or so.  Those 150 people, those 50 or so families, didn't know who bought their meal, but they did know that something special happened on September 11.  Hopefully, they went out and did something themselves to spread a little more light on a dark day.

As for me, well....  September 11, 2001, will always be a dark day for me, a day when the darkness blotted out the light in the skies over lower Manhattan.  But September 11, 2011, is now a day when the light started to spread again, when I started doing what I could to exorcise my country's demons.  I hope that other people will join me.

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