I was falling asleep at night when I got a call from a friend. “Turn on the TV,” he said.
I couldn’t understand what I was seeing. I couldn’t understand what I was hearing, either, as the broadcast was in a language I didn’t yet know.
But as the minutes turned into hours, as our friends gathered together to pull an all-nighter watching the one TV in our building with international news, as we sat in shock as the sun came up, all we knew was this: September 11, 2001 was going to change our lives forever.
I had been in Japan for a month. About two weeks earlier, I’d met Shawn, and we had a fateful night out when we sang karaoke until 3 am and rode home together on one bike. But we weren’t a couple yet. Really, we didn’t even know each other.
September 11th changed that.
I didn’t go to school the next day, but Shawn did. I think all of the Americans in town were allowed a day off, but as a Canadian, Shawn was expected to work. That morning, he walked into his first class, a class he co-taught with a Japanese teacher, and the teacher wrote “terrorism” on the board and asked Shawn to explain it. Of course, he didn’t really know how to fully explain such a concept in general, much less to an introductory English-language class.
Days later, he and I hung out on the balcony to my apartment complex. Neither of us really knew what to say. We were removed from the world where people were openly grieving on street corners. Instead, we were watching it all from afar, in a country where we couldn’t speak the language.
“You know I’m studying for the LSATs,” Shawn said.
“Oh ya?” I said, distracted by my other thoughts.
“But I don’t think I’m going to law school anymore,” Shawn said.
That woke me up. I barely knew him, but I knew that he was headed to law school eventually. I knew that was the plan.
“What? Why?” I asked.
“Everything is different now,” he said, simply. “How can I go to law school after what’s happened this week?”
I didn’t interrogate him on this idea. I was 22, living in a foreign country on my own, and I didn’t know what to make of the future. We talked more about what he’d do instead of law school, and he told me that he thought he wanted to do something that would help stop something like September 11th from ever happening again. I’m not sure of exactly the words he used, but that was certainly his point.
Do you know what? That’s exactly what he did. He started to read more about international politics, strategy and terrorism. The LSAT books were thrown to the side (I’m not even sure if he ended up taking the exam) and I watched as the other books on his table grew to include titles about war, terror, Afghanistan and Iraq. His thirst for knowledge was incredible.
All around the world, there were a lot of reactions to 9-11. Initially, of course, we all felt shock and grief. But soon, for many people, those emotions turned to anger and fear.
But not for Shawn. This isn’t because he forgot about the horror of that morning eighteen years ago. It’s because he knew that the best way to counter intolerance and violence was to study the problem, act rationally, and think about alternative points of view.
Shawn was not a perfect man. He made mistakes, even in his career, and he sometimes got overwhelmed by the intensity of the work he did. But he always engaged with problems, rather than run from them.
And on that beautiful September morning when the world changed forever, including here in the city I now call home, Shawn sat up all night in a sparse apartment halfway around the world and decided that he was going to change the trajectory of his life.
In doing so, he changed mine too.
In effect, his entire adult life was about working for this cause – to bring peace and justice to more people, to fight against intolerance, and to make sure the world was safer for everyone. Yes, maybe he could have done the same thing with a law degree. But what made him truly exceptional was his ability to see a crisis in front of him and change course when it was needed. Including with his own life plans.
I saw that change in his eyes in those days after September 11th. He couldn’t just sit and watch the world go by.
He was going to do something to make it better. Not someday. But today.