Tragedy and Humanity

Originally published for my column Inner Actions on

I grew up in New York City, where I learned to dip artichoke leaves in melted butter at age three, about the power of Broadway musicals at age 6, and how to ride the Second Avenue bus to acting school all by myself at age 10. I also learned to live in a bubble, blocking out noise coming from the street and surrounding apartments, and to stare at the floor in elevators to avoid unwanted chitchat with nosey adults. I learned to walk down the street barely noticing other people, seeing them merely as bodies in space, to be ignored or cautiously avoided.

Walking down the street in my own orbit of thought, with an automatic “danger assessment meter” constantly running underneath, became an isolating habit, a protective way to move through life. But that habitual mode of being collapsed for a spell, on Thursday, September 13, 2001, my first subway ride back to work after the devastating events of the Tuesday before.

I was not the only one waiting for the Q train, as I half-expected to be, going back to work on that bright Thursday. People milled about on the platform, waiting in silence for one of the few working train lines that could get us from Brooklyn into Manhattan. The train took its time, but no one sucked their tongue in frustration. Most people like me, were in shock, jittery and a little scared to be back in our regular routine with the new knowledge that at any moment it could all be violently disrupted. Clear eyes met mine. We shared longer, knowing gazes when glancing up from the newspapers. A few folks openly shared new facts or inquired about missing people. For the first time in my experience we waited not alone, but together for the train. Share on X

On its way to Manhattan, the Q train emerges from its tunnel and rides over the Manhattan bridge, offering (depending on the weather) a stunning view of the lower Manhattan skyline. On clear days before Sept. 11,  I always looked for Lady Liberty and then at the Twin Towers, looming so large over everything and casting shadows on the river.

As we burst out of the tunnel into the light of this clear day, everyone looked out the window. And there it was: a smokey pile, a huge void where the towers had been. There was complete silence as we rocked back and forth with the motion of the train. I felt my heart leap into my throat and tears stream down my cheeks, and I noticed others blinking back their tears. We looked at each other with compassion. New Yorkers. The most hardened people in the world. They had become real to me. We were sharing a sacred moment in the subway.

It is not an original question, but  why does it take tragedy to bring out the best in people? Share on X And then of course, why, when the crises point passes, do we so quickly go back to our sheltered selves?

Sometimes, in our own lives, we unconsciously create a sense of calamity in order to access more of our humanity. We pick a fight, or lose a wallet. I recently heard of a little girl who was getting a reputation for being extremely clumsy, always spilling things and breaking valuables. It turns out that she unwittingly did this every time her parents were experiencing tension, which shifted their antagonism from each other to her. In her infinite child wisdom, her crises got them working together as a team, for a little while, at least.

In remembrance, I leave you with these questions:

Are there qualities that tragic times bring out in you, that you would like to access more often?

Are there ways you try to unconsciously create mini-disasters to access a piece of humanity in yourself, or from others, that you are not able to access directly?

What impact does it have on your self-esteem? On the ones you love?

And, in honor of creating a shift, do something that you would only do after a tragedy or disaster. Notice people around you more.  Smile at strangers. Volunteer. Donate.

And remember, love yourself, no matter what.

2 responses to “Tragedy and Humanity”

  1. Samantha says:

    Deeply touched by your story Blair.

    ‘For the first time in my experience we waited not alone, but together for the train.’

    This struck me as so poignant – the acuteness of your collectively awakened state and heightened senses in the aftermath of 9/11.

    I was safe and sound here on the west coast with my husband, glued to CNN when it all happened. In shock. In tears as we watched tiny bodies fall out of the windows as if they were dolls. That desperate discomfort of ‘This can’t be real. This isn’t really happening.’ Yet watching it happen right before our very eyes.

    I can only imagine what it was REALLY like for all of you who were there in such close proximity to it all. To be so close to entry wound. So vulnerably close.

    Thank you so much for sharing your heart and granting us all an intimate look at what it was like for you in the aftermath.


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