A faded lesson from 9/11

When we say, "Never forget," we need to remember, and live the too-soon-forgotten aftereffects of the Sept. 11 attacks

Firefighters can experience many types of conflict in the course of their work. There might be friction between two firefighters on a crew, or a crew might turn against an overly critical and demanding officer.

A chief might be seen as petty or out of touch. Firefighters might have differences and conflicts with members of other agencies or people in the service community.

I've worked with many fire departments that are dealing with organizational problems that ultimately lead back to interpersonal conflict. One common thread in these conflicts is what I call the "That's just who I am Syndrome."

The Tribute in Light rises above the lower Manhattan skyline in New York.
The Tribute in Light rises above the lower Manhattan skyline in New York. (Photo/AP, Mark Lennihan)

Firefighters dislike working with an unreasonable officer. He responds by saying, "I'm a perfectionist. That's just who I am." A firefighter complains about perceived harassment from a coworker. The other firefighter responds, "I like to kid around. That's just who I am."

We all have our unique temperaments and personalities, developed over many years of experience and upbringing. Some researchers believe certain traits are inherent, such as introversion or extraversion.

But personality preferences are not the same as behavioral choices. An introvert can learn to be a good public speaker. The class clown can be serious when it is called for. When it really matters, all of us can transcend our default positions and habits.

So when I hear people dismiss someone else's concerns with the "that's just who I am" excuse, I wonder how much they really care about the outcome of the situation.

Are they willing to try to make changes and meet someone else halfway? Or do they feel justified that their current habits, behavior and attitude are flawless and it is up to the other person to make any adjustments?

What we forgot

I've been thinking about this lately as the anniversary of 9/11 approaches. That terrible day was a turning point for the country as a whole, and particularly for the fire service. All of us vowed to never forget.

One thing I remember from the immediate aftermath of 9/11 was that people in this country treated one another differently. I heard about it from friends in New York City, but I think it was true everywhere.

For a time, people were nicer to each other, they were more sensitive to another's needs, they were more patient and considerate. There was a sense that we were all in this together, and that we depended on each other in ways we might not have recognized on Sept. 10.

Unfortunately, it did not last. Within weeks we were back to our old habits, ensconced within our own groups and embracing old rivalries and differences. Back to excuse ourselves by saying, "That's just who I am."

On this anniversary of 9/11, I challenge all firefighters to remember what it felt like to be part of a larger community. It's true that we are who we are, but we can also be better.

We can be more patient, kinder and more inclusive. We can make an effort when it really matters. We did it all those years ago, when we clearly recognized how much we needed each other. That interdependence is as true today as it was then.

Consider how the world might be different if we all lived in recognition of that truth every day of our lives. 

This article, originally published Sept. 6, 2016, has been updated.

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