Lessons with 9/11: How to live without regret

Lessons with 9/11: How to live without regret

I was at the World Trade Center when it fell. Every year I say to myself that this will be the last post I write about 9/11. And then every year I write another post. So, now I have a whole archive of posts about my story:  I was so close to death, from suffocation, that I went through the acceptance process. Then I lived. Now I write about it.

For a while I thought the most remarkable part of my story is not that I lived, but that I walked toward the building. I had time to get away, but I wanted to see people jumping. I couldn’t believe it. So I stood, right there at the bottom, looking up to see what was going on. I talked to people next to me. I did many things that I could have regretted.

Later, though, after lots of counseling, I realized that my behavior was normal human behavior for the situation I was in. No one knew buildings would fall. And there are not many people who could look away if you were told someone was jumping from the World Trade Center.

Once I understood that my behavior was normal, it was easier to not have regrets about what I did.

1. If you like your life, you don’t regret what came before.
I would not be on a farm if I had not lived through 9/11. When I thought I was going to die, I had the privilege of understanding, at the most fundamental level, what mattered to me: And all I cared about was people in my immediate family. I did not think of anything else. Having that experience makes it much easier for me to say no to launching my fourth startup and choosing instead to homeschool my kids.

I still have nightmares about 9/11, I still have never watched the towers fall on TV. I just can’t do it. But I also know that the good things about my life today came from living through 9/11. It’s a way for me to not regret having been there.

2. Overcome new obstacles all the time.
The big regrets we have often come from big moments in our life. If you only have one big moment, and it didn’t turn out how you wanted, then you are more likely to regret it than if you have lots of big moments. It’s why people tell you that once you finish writing a novel, put it in a drawer and start writing another: that way when the first novel gets rejected, it won’t matter that much because you have another to send.

People just want more chances to get it right, really. And if you put big challenges in front of yourself you’ll get more chances throughout your life. People ask me how I can possibly homeschool and do my job. I wonder the same thing. The photo up top encapsulates the problem: The kids are so cozy but they obstruct my view nearly completely. It’s scary to commit to that. And it’s scary not to. But the best way to not regret what has happened in the past is to create more challenges for myself, and surprise myself with how well you make them turn out; the antidote for regret is gratitude.

3. Know what leads to regret for most people.
I’m a big fan of assuming that we are normal. Because the odds are that we are normal. And, also, we don’t gain anything in life from assuming we are not normal because it just undermines our ability to use the information other people have learned about life.

So, for those of you who can make that leap of faith that you are normal, Bonnie Ware, a hospice worker, wrote a book about the five most common regrets of people who are dying. The list rings true to me:

I  wish I had had the courage to live a life true to myself rather than the life others expected of me.

I wish I didn’t work so hard.

I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.

I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

I wish I had let myself be happier.

I am not a person who has a lot of regret. But I’m also not a person who has a lot of stability. I’m becoming convinced that regret and stability go hand in hand. Because most of the regrets come from complacency—staying on one, proscribed path and not veering from it.

For example, focusing less on work and more on friends actually feels really risky when you have kids and a job and a spouse. Revealing your feelings to other people is risky because then you have to know your feelings yourself, and once you know your feelings, you will be compelled to take action toward them, which will invariably shake things up.

So staving off regret requires creating a sense of uneasiness.

4. Take control over your life.
One thing that strikes me about that list is that the regrets are about things we can control. Which means that if we take responsibility for our lives, instead of just letting them happen how they happen, we are less likely to live with regret.

It’s not like someone regrets that they didn’t win the lottery. The lottery actually would not have helped with any of those areas of regret. So a lot of regret is about time management.

If you are tied to a daily to-do list, you lose the big-picture. Then time management becomes about menial tasks and you open yourself up to large regrets. If you do it right, time management is about values, so good time managers are able to accomplish what they believe in over the long haul.

5. Make a choice to like your life.
The last item on the list really resonates with me because it’s about happiness, and I think I write so much about that topic  because I don’t want to have regrets. I see that happiness is more of a point of view than a series of events that leads to something great. I also think it’s why I write about 9/11 every year. Because I want to make sure that for me, the event is one that triggers gratitude rather than regret.

This list of regrets makes me realize that we spend most of our lives chasing something that will make us happy and then we get to the end of our life and we realize that happiness was there all along. For some of us the happiness will be from contentment and stability. For others, happiness will be from being interested and engaged. Recognizing that it’s what we picked because it’s what makes us happy is a good step to being able to say “I’m happy” right now.

57 replies
  1. LC Coleman | Colored Girl Confidential
    LC Coleman | Colored Girl Confidential says:

    My uncle was driving a cab near the World Trade Center when the towers fell. We didn’t hear from him for three days afterwards but when we finally did, it was to find out that he was ok and just suffering minor injuries. Scariest time of my life.

    I don’t like to think about tragedy – I don’t know many people who do. Writing about it is even more brave than thinking about it, so thank you – for sharing your story and a couple timeless lessons to go along with it.

  2. Irving Podolsky
    Irving Podolsky says:

    So I read over the last moments regret list and I can honestly admit that I’m living the first four and I won’t consider them the day I die.

    But number five is a hurdle. A big one.

    People say that being “happy” is a choice. Well sure, who doesn’t want to be happy, but how you get to that sparkly space is the subject of a thousand books, hundreds of spiritual and psychological practices and lots of ingested drugs and alcohol.

    I’ve pursued the state of being happy all my life and still, on a good day, I’m just feeling neutral. And I’m HAPPY for that!

    If I can steer away from depression, I’m happy about that too.

    If I can get close to gaining some bliss from positive distractions through the day, I’m happy about that as well.

    The truth is, unlike my wife, I don’t wake up happy. My wife’s happiness bubbles up from the inside and stays that way until it’s disturbed by something on the outside, like a call about her brother’s potential throat cancer.

    Generally speaking, I wake up neutral hoping that my plans will pan out. If they do, I’m closer to being happy. If they don’t, I’m closer to being sad, meaning I’m constantly testing myself and judging myself and rewarding and punishing myself about my successes and failures. And if my wins fall behind my loses, a whole layer of rationalization kicks in to counteract my feelings of failure, of being less of what I should be.

    Those “rationalizations” come from reading fifty self-help books, and they did help.

    But where did those good boy-bad boy ideas come from – the rule, that if I do the right thing, I’m allowed to love myself. I could say my parents shaped me, but it’s not that simple. I think I was born this way.

    And why did I come into this world pre-wired to be my own disciplinarian? God only knows.

    So…am I LETTING myself be happy? I’m doing more than that. I’m struggling to change my basic nature, and I don’t know if that’s possible.


    • chris
      chris says:

      Irv, I can SO relate to what you say! I am the same way–I agree that it may be so deep-seated as to be natural to me/you.

      Penelope is right about gratitude. If you are impartial and just observe all the beauty and plenty in your life, you MUST be grateful. There are brilliant, sparkling moments of surprising joy–in my life, a Great Blue Heron among the reeds, waiting for frog or small fish to come into view. Or the color of the blue in the sky, or the salmon color of the sun-setting.

      • Irving Podolsky
        Irving Podolsky says:

        Yeah Chris, I know…I’m not appreciating enough. But loss of faith gets in the way of that. I just wish I had the confidence to expect my next job will be there when I really need it. ‘Cuz I believe I really need it NOW, and it’s not locked in. They rarely are.

        I should be better at this after all these years. And maybe I am, but it’s still not enough. I worry.

        But I AM grateful, soooo grateful, that I’m married to a special woman who stuck by me all these years. I love her to death.


    • Elaine
      Elaine says:

      I think a lot of happiness and unhappiness is derived from expectation. Your comment about “hoping your plans pan out” and then measuring your day and then judging yourself based off of all that — well that’s all expectation. I understand that maybe you are “wired” for expectation, but if you can lessen it. If you can wake up each day knowing that it is a gift, it is not guaranteed, and then appreciating every little good thing that happened to you. Well that is “allowing yourself to be happy.” It’s pausing in your life, knowing it’s temporary, and enjoying the truly small things. And I’m talking small — perfectly ripe tomatoes, time to read Penelope’s blog, having a wife that wakes up with a smile on her face and enjoying that smile right at that moment, clean water, warm shower…it’s really hard to slow our mind down enough to really see, i mean really see the beauty of our lives, but when we do, it’s priceless. The fact is, we will all receive phone calls that will bring us to tears, tragic things will happen, and so it is really important on the days when we wake up feeling good (healthy), and can hop out of bed and there is food, smiles and a hot bath that we take stock, give gratitude in that moment and know that even those basic things cannot be an expectation.

      I hope that helps you on your journey. and if not, i hope it helps someone.


      • Irving Podolsky
        Irving Podolsky says:

        Thanks Elaine, for taking the time to respond to my words. You are so right! And I know it.

        And I suppose, if I thought or KNEW I was near death, none of the things that rub against my confidence and hope would mean anything anymore.


  3. Jim
    Jim says:

    Turning something painful or regretful into something that generates gratitude is, I think, the essence of a healthy and happy life.

    • Bridget
      Bridget says:

      Yes, or at least a very important aspect of happiness. We can always learn something from every situation. There are always good seeds we can plant for tomorrow.

  4. Karen
    Karen says:

    You talk about “stability and contentment” versus “interested and engaged.” I think there’s a pendulum that swings (at least for me) Do you think most people have a set point?

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Yeah, I do think we have a set point. Of course we are able to accept more instability at 22 than when we have a toddler. But still, we have a general spot where we are comfortable. Knowing that spot is so important, because we can always trust that’s where we’ll get back to.


      • Ann Stanley
        Ann Stanley says:

        I love this idea – the wisdom of knowing your comfortable point between contentment and engagement. Myers-Briggs has been great for my self-awareness in this area, especially in knowing that I am a ‘p’ and therefore thrive on open-endedness. I used to think that not being contented was some kid of sin, a deviation from the ‘correct’ way to be. Now I see my restlessness as a form of engagement with the world that brings me enjoyment and purpose.

        • Jenn
          Jenn says:

          Hi Ann, I am a ‘P’ too. But I had not made that connection that we thrive on open-endedness. But I love that, that is so true of me, it drives my co-workers crazy.

          • Ann Stanley
            Ann Stanley says:

            The workplace favours Js but we need Ps for the times when flexibility is needed, say when there is a crisis. On the other hand we Ps don’t want to be creating crises for others!

  5. Bridget
    Bridget says:

    This morning someone on the radio said, “I’m at the age where I don’t have time to do things just because other people expect it.” Unfortunately, we don’t often realize these things or have the courage to live differently until we’ve already lived half our lives or are on our deathbeds. This is a great reminder to live more intentionally with the time we have today.

  6. Rachel
    Rachel says:

    I’m happy right now! This weekend, I found a used Audubon Field Guide to California. Now I can start doing what I’ve really wanted for a couple years – identifying flora and fauna in my area. I look at the pretty pictures and think that this would be something I would like, my spouse (soon to be) would like, and maybe even my future friend, Penelope would like doing this sort of thing, too.

  7. Roberta
    Roberta says:

    I think that for the survivors of 9/11 the pain of it will never go away or recede. In a way anyone who survived it has a lot in common with the people who survived the holocaust. Of course the duration wasn’t as long but I think the effect would be the same.

    I just watched the movie “Extremely Loud, Incredibly Close”. It was hard to watch. Especially the jumping. That is the thing that stays with everyone I think. Even those of us who were not there.

    Be well.

    • Pinkbird
      Pinkbird says:

      Me too. I’m in my fifties and as far as I’m concerned, I haven’t lived my life yet. I sure as hell haven’t gotten a lot of breaks, but looking back on regrets will just slow me down. I’m doing better now because I’ve stopped caring about most things and I lavish my attention and ambition on just a few things. The result is that I’m a lot saner now, and, hopefully, I’ll soon be a lot more successful.

  8. Lynn Lawrence
    Lynn Lawrence says:

    If you Penelope fans haven’t done so, make certain to read her post about 9/11, how she competed with others who broke into a building to drink water from the toilet to clear her from choking, then, she walked until a kind stranger took her in and let her shower the toxic materials off.

    Many people face life or death choices every day. It is way more of a novelty to be disconnected from those choices than most in the US can begin to understand. It’s kind of an aberration of nature. That might be why it is so hard to be satisfied. Tomorrow, I will concentrate on gratitude.

    Thanks again Penelope for your bravery.

  9. Elizabeth
    Elizabeth says:

    P, just a note to say that I’m thinking about you today. I wasn’t nearly as close or as traumatized by the events that happened eleven years ago today, and it’s still very difficult for me to get through the day. Sending positive energy to help you get through it.

  10. Sarah
    Sarah says:

    So much of what you write hits home for me. I so look forward to your column arriving in my inbox. I have learned some great truths. Thank you!

  11. Alexandria Cruz
    Alexandria Cruz says:

    When I was younger I never understood why people would say, mostly adults, “I remember where I was when…” Growing up I never would have thought I would ever use that term, but I did. I remember exactly where I was on 9/11. I was nowhere near New York City; I was in good ol’ Fort Lauderdale, Florida in 9th grade debate. I have to say my freshman year turned out to be one of the worst years in my life; but every year I get sad, I cry on my drive to work listening to the radio host talk about that day and remembering. And then I think to myself, why am I crying, I didn’t know anyone that died. I wasn’t there to see it happen. I watched it on TV but it’s not nearly the same as being there. I guess it’s just means I am human, and while this day was tragic it helps me to remember that life is too short to dwell on regrets. Bad things happen to good people every day, in small ways or in big ways, and we have to remember that. Talking about this tragic day FOR ME helps me to remember when I forget that things can be much worse. This is probably the first blog I have ever read and I am glad I did.

  12. Tropical Boy
    Tropical Boy says:

    Having gone through 9/11 myself and witnessing this tragedy four days before my twenty first birthday I can definitely say that this post brought back old memories. Initially after the dust settled (sort of) I was left fighting with my own selfish thoughts of how this tragedy will affect the most pivotal moment in my life (turning 21). The interesting thing about my thoughts were the sounds of this annoying voice penetrating my head during the most confusing time of my life, it was Mayor Giuliani imploring the people of NYC to return to our normal lives. “Return to normalcy” he said….”Go to work tomorrow and do the things we would normally do on a Wednesday”. What made his comments interesting was the fact that commuters traveling from NJ to NYC will not be able to have a regular Wednesday because their means of transportation was now a part of the mangle rumble at the base of WTC towers 1 & 2. I guess Mayor Giuliani could not afford to let NYC sleep for at least one night.

  13. Matt Bingham
    Matt Bingham says:

    Hey Penelope…I still read your blogs and still love your writings (even the ones I don’t totally agree with :)) I do love the 9/11 posts. I know it must be difficult to write these so thank you for your honesty.

  14. Marie Rotter
    Marie Rotter says:

    I really like outlook about happiness being there all along. I know I always get ahead of myself and plan months and years out, always pushing toward some distant goal and I can’t be happy, I can’t rest, until I get there. However, when I look back, I realize I missed so much because I didn’t take the time to appreciate where I was at the moment.

    I came to your blog today because I knew you’d have something to say about today that would make me think a little deeper. You didn’t disappoint.

  15. Beverley
    Beverley says:

    Your blog really moved me today – something about the word regrets really resonates with me. Whenever I make a choice I wonder will I regret making it. When I don’t make a choice (another way of making a choice) I also wonder will I regret the path not taken.

    Its always easier to be passive, choose not to choose and stay where you are. Of course where you are may change and may not change. Choices.

    And with regard to the five things normal people regret:

    I wish I had had the courage to live a life true to myself rather than the life others expected of me. [I think maybe I do this somewhat… but I am not always sure who I am…]

    I wish I didn’t work so hard. [Not applicable… I enjoy my work and don’t think I work to hard.]

    I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings. [ I think I do this more often then not.]

    I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.[BIG REGRET!]

    I wish I had let myself be happier.[I don’t feel that this is something in my control…. I do my best to “feel grateful” and “enjoy the present” but there are hormones and moodswings…. I just don’t know how to do this…]

    Thanks for your blog – today and always.

  16. jen
    jen says:

    I’ve been thinking about your post a lot today. I would not have run toward the building. If I’d been in the second tower after the first tower was hit, I would have immediately left the second tower. This is b/c I was in OKC when the federal building was bombed. I was working in public affairs at a large military installation five miles from the bomb site, and things got very crazy, very fast. And, some of the people who ran toward the building died in the aftermath. I remember thinking, “I’m the kind of person who would have done that, and I might have ended up dying, so in the future, I’m never going to do that.”

    I’m glad you write about the WTC. I wish I could write more about the bombing in OKC, but I don’t really feel like I have permission to do that. Maybe I can write a short eBook or something someday. I lost my college friend, Jill, in the bombing.

    Sometimes, I feel as though only certain people are allowed to own the tragedy of the OKC Bombing — those on the official survivor/victim list or museum or state or city officials. I’ve noticed that when some people speak about the bombing from a personal experience it is seen as somewhat indulgent, so I say very little, even on anniversaries. But, it happened to all of us here and it changed this place in innumerable ways. I live a mile from the national memorial. I’ve only been twice, and never inside to see the museum. I can’t absorb all that tragedy — all the stories of the people who died.

    And, I’ll never forget the first time I walked by it with my son. It’s very grassy-green with the reflecting pool and chairs and lots of granite. He was four at the time and he said, “What is that place?” You find out what you believe when your kids ask questions like that.

    And, you know what completely devastated me? One day, about two years ago, I was driving by the Memorial fence where people tack their license plates and teddy bears — still to this day. And, I saw someone had laminated a picture of one of the more well-known victims, Julie Welch. And, I realized that her hair had gone completely out of style and it hit me like a f*c*ing ton of bricks.

    It’s September 12, now. Bless you!

  17. Chris
    Chris says:

    Last night at 10:00 I quickly tossed my 11 and 12 year-old kids into bed so that I could rush back to my computer and get back to work. My 12 year-old son, who is on the cusp of adolescence, but not quite there yet, called to me and asked me to come lie down with him for a minute. I told him I would be there “in a little bit after I finish work”.

    Then I started reading this post. When I got to:

    “And all I cared about was people in my immediate family.”

    I stopped reading, closed my computer, and went to cuddle with my son.

    Thanks for the reminder.


  18. Richard
    Richard says:

    I just wanted to say thankyou. I work in recruitment. Every day I speak to people who are just totally caught up in the stuff that doesn’t matter. I’ve been there, still am I guess. Why does it take something traumatic (9/11, the sudden death of a friend) for us to reflect on what’s really important? I’m going to finish work early today and take my son to the beach before it gets dark. So thankyou from him as well!

  19. Tim Mojonnier
    Tim Mojonnier says:

    I agree with you that by finding a way to have many “big moments,” we can overcome the regrets that are encountered in life. I also relate to how we often become captives to our “to-do” list, losing sight of what really matters. This happened to me many years ago.

    My 4-year old son had to undergo major surgery on a day when I was scheduled to attend a Board of Directors meeting. I rationalized my decision to attend the Board meeting, telling myself that my wife and father-in-law were at the hospital, so that everything that could be done would be done. But at the end the end of the day, I regretted having chosen “business” over “family.” My heart told me that I should have been there for my son.

    I learned my lesson, and now put the “family” ahead of “business.” As a famous philosopher once said, the unexamined life is not worth living. By learning from our regrets, we become better people.


  20. machine machine
    machine machine says:

    I want to be fair, but having just stumbled on your blog, my first reaction is you are suffering from extreme narcissism. Not the word as typically thrown as an insult, but industrial grade narcissism. I think if you can accept and understand your condition you will no longer feel the need to feed off the enablers posting on your site. On the other hand I see some honest and direct communication. That is very refreshing. I know this is tough to read, but if third parties (parents and possibly divorces) had not set you up economically (pure speculation) you wouldn’t have such a difficult time finding center.

    I speak to you out of love.

    machine machine

  21. Rebecca@MidcenturyModernRemodel
    Rebecca@MidcenturyModernRemodel says:

    My favorite on the list is “take control over your life.” I get so tired of the victims. Everywhere. My job sucks, my husband does xyz, my this, my that. My life isn’t good because of someone else. Really? Do something, take action, change jobs, ignore your boss. I am always amazed and appreciative to read stories about people who have real problems, work through them, and then end up better and in an improved situation on the other side. About ten years ago I became sort of addicted to reading memoirs. I am so curious about people get to where they get to. Just finished the memoir for Hope Solo. Although the writing isn’t great, the woman is. She became the best goal keeper (soccer) in the world, honestly, through her own doing. She wasn’t raised in a soccer family by rich parents who get her the best of everything. Her family was supportive but with very limited resources and challenges. She did it. I gave it to my 14-year-old son to read. He is a goal keeper. He thinks this book is about soccer.

  22. dunya tv
    dunya tv says:

    I just came across your blog and reading your beautiful words. I thought I would leave my first comment but I don’t know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.

  23. robert bob
    robert bob says:

    If you do what makes you happy there will be no regets in life. Do not let people control what is rigth for you. Life is too short .Some time people are not happy with what you do but you have to be happy or what is the point in living.

  24. Greg
    Greg says:

    I was near Chicago when the tower I had worked in (2WTC) fell near you. It is ironic I think that you thought it had been nuked. I say this as the amount of kinetic energy released when they fell was roughly equivalent to a small tactical nuke… but all constrained within two vertical areas. Needless to say, I did not come to help look for survivors… the fuitility was apparent enough to me on CNN. One of the guys shown jumping looked like a former co-worker of mine. I still have nightmares to date even though it is unlikely to be accurate. He did die in 2WTC that day though…. but it is a mute issue really. To think of all that was ground up in the dust is truly gross. I knew at least two who were killed that day. Too much took 2 years to sink in for me. I drink a bit regularly as a result. To dream is a bad thing for different reasons for me. so I avoid that part of sleep. or try to…. I wish you all the best in rearranging your life. Some day, I should blog too…. much to say. I teach at the university today in order to give back some. My full time job cannot satisfy my heart anymore, although even 12 years later, I cannot escape it. Enjoy your family for Anthony and for Angelo…. and for me.

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