9/11 Shifted my values, which is why I’m on my phone all day long

9/11 Shifted my values, which is why I’m on my phone all day long

People are still finding debris from the World Trade Center attacks. Tucked into crevices, between building where you don’t expect it. This is what I feel like is happening in my body as well when someone brings up a topic that makes me think of my day at the World Trade Center all over again.

Recently, it was the discussion of how it’s a messed up life to work on your phone all day. Why are so many people saying they need to be an unplugged as parent? I think those people are desperate and misguided; being tethered to my phone gives me freedom to make decisions completely consistent with my values.

A way I test this hypothesis is go back to the moment on 9/11 when I was at the World Trade Center when it fell. I remember every minute of what happened from when the World Trade Center started to fall to when somebody found me. So I say to myself, During that time when I thought I was going to die, would I have been grateful for the times I was tethered to my phone? The answer is yes. Here’s why:

There was a time—between when the building fell and when I pulled myself through a broken window—where I accepted the fact that I was going to die. You don’t have to worry about the process of dying. You get really peaceful. You don’t panic. I was just sad that I wouldn’t see my family.  I wanted everyone’s life to turn out really nice, and I wanted to see it.

Soon after the World Trade Center I had kids, and part of the reason I know it’s right to homeschool them is I know what you think about when you’re going to die, and I don’t want to miss eight hours of every day with my kids, because I know there’s nothing else that’s going to matter in the end.

I don’t know how I would be able to live with the memories of the World Trade Center and not be with my kids, but I don’t know how I would be with my kids all day without my phone.

Being with kids all day seems really lonely. That’s why you’re all afraid to homeschool. But my phone allows me to  talk to an adult when I want. And it allows me to check out if I want to check out. It’s the new millennium way to take a Valium while you parent.

Months after 9/11, in a support group, people talked about coworkers who refused to stop working at their desk and then died.

A recurring theme of the support group was “work is so stupid, I can’t go back.” It’s true that work is stupid when you think you’re about to die, but when you don’t think you’re about to die, you need work. Because you need purpose. You each need to feel like there’s something bigger than yourself.

So I know that I need work, and I experiment every day with where work fits in my life. For a while, I cut back on everything. I gave up running Brazen Careerist and I moved to a farm, and I baked bread and decorated and took care of my family, and I couldn’t stop thinking of companies. I couldn’t stop wanting to do something bigger. I couldn’t stop wanting to write about something besides not knowing what I was writing about.

Being tethered to my phone allowed me to launch a career coaching business from the farm. Then I launched more.  My phone allows me to be with my kids all day and still work. I can answer phone calls all day and still be with my kids.

The World Trade Center recovery group discussions taught me that life is a balancing act between the only thing that has meaning in your life, which is your friends and family, and what you do with your time that makes life feel fulfilling and not just meaningful. Your family is what gives your life meaning. Your phone is what makes it fulfilling

Each year, the 9/11 survivors fill  out a written report on how we’re doing. Each time  I feel like I’m part of this century’s version of the Framingham Heart Study and that somehow we’re going to learn something important. A couple years ago we learned that if you were anxious before the World Trade Center, you’re anxious during the recovery and increasingly anxious afterwards. If you were not an anxious person before it, you recover faster and are not anxious after.

So, really, anxiety is about resilience. It’s clear to me that I fall on the very anxious side of everything; very anxious before, extremely anxious in recovery, and over‑the‑top anxious afterward. It took World Trade Center counselors to show me why I’m anxious. It took a World Trade Center counselor to show me that I can treat the anxiety by watching how the people around me treat theirs.

So today I’m on medicine for anxiety, but there’s no medicine like my phone. When I was a kid I carried a book wherever I went. People thought, “Oh, she’s so smart,” but it was really a neurotic dependence on words to calm myself down.

I don’t know how people deal with intellectual boredom. I don’t know how people deal with an inability to escape any situation they’re in. It feels claustrophobic to me to not be able to read.  Now I don’t need a book because because I have my phone. I wonder about people who advocate an unplugged life. Do none of those people have a need to calm themselves down with words?

After 9/11, my eyes were patched so I couldn’t see. I spent a week in the dark as a sort-of philosopher. I realize 9/11 changed my life, but no one lives a normal life. No one does everything in an expected way. All we have is our instinct for what we need right then.

It’s easy for me to tell you I’m tethered to my phone and not leading an unplugged life.  I interrupt my kids when my phone rings and I shush them during coaching and conference calls.

I know this is right for me because I had a near‑death moment that didn’t just give me the ability to die peacefully. It gave me the ability to live with self‑confidence, knowing what is right for me. And there is nothing wrong with using my phone as a crutch all day long.

46 replies
  1. Razwana
    Razwana says:

    The title of this post is interesting, Penelope, because I don’t see you advocating EVERYONE is tethered to their phone. It appeals to your values and supports you because of your individual experience (9/11).

    Personally, I don’t feel controlled by my phone. It’s a world of information and communication in one little package. I feel fine when I’m connected and fine when I’m not.

    Without it, however, I would find it difficult to communicate with friends and family who live in another country.

    But it doesn’t control me. I control myself and the impact is has on my life. And that’s the difference between who hate phones, and those who don’t.

    Are there moments when you actually want to unplug? If you’re taking a break from work, and your kids are with you? How does this feel?

  2. Natalie Ross
    Natalie Ross says:

    Beautiful. I wonder how the world would change if more people had a similar experience, where they accepted they were going to die, and then were fortunate to be rescued. I feel like people put happiness into this distant, future place, rather than figuring out a way to factor what makes them happy into their everyday lives. Thank you for doing this, and thank you for sharing your experiences.

  3. J
    J says:

    Thank you for this post. I’m heading in to work in downtown New York and what you wrote is the best antidote for all the politicians and pundits who weren’t there and have turned the day to their own purposes. It’s an honest response to that day and it is much appreciated.

  4. GregV
    GregV says:

    Great post. This reminds me of the Antonio Machado poem. “Traveler, there is no path. The path is made by walking.” I think by and large we all want prescriptions for how to live our lives, but there really aren’t any set paths, any “tracks,” any “ladders.” As you say, it really is about what we need right then in the moment. Kids remind us of this, too.

  5. Rachel
    Rachel says:

    I can’t be the only person who cries when they read this.
    I wasn’t there that day, but this is how I feel about my life too, so for some weird reason I can relate. It makes me so upset and I don’t know why.

    You’re so lucky you can verbalize this, because people like me can’t. I feel lucky I get to read it.

  6. Danielle
    Danielle says:

    I find part of this post ironic. In particular, the implication that those who advocate an unplugged lifestyle cannot be calmed and soothed with words. What about the spoken word? What about words in books? The art of conversation is still alive and well in many parts of the world! I invite readers to look up from the phone or tablet once in a while and meet the gazes of your neighbours. This can be calming to you and to those in your community. Checking in with others encourages empathy in ourselves and others.

  7. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    Actually, this century’s phone (the smartphone) allows you to have both words (apps that bring up articles and books) and a conservation with someone remotely in real time while being not tethered from a cord. So really you can “have it all” if that’s what you want.

  8. Lori Pollard
    Lori Pollard says:

    Thank you! I am tired of hearing other people and media tell me I am selfish and “addicted” to my phone. Your words helped unleash a torrent of bottled up guilt and fury. I too struggle with anxiety bordering on agoraphobia. My phone is frequently my lifeline to reality. I was also the nerd with the book. Words comfort me and foster the safety/security emotions that enable me to engage when necessary. It’s good to know that it is a valid CHOICE and to tune out those who would impose their unplugged rules on me. Also a reminder to not impose MY judgements on others in situations I may know nothing about.

  9. tia robertson
    tia robertson says:

    WOW! I love your blogs. I connect to you in everything you write, and today I felt so moved by your info. While I plan to homeschool until highschool if I have kids and as I age I hate the phone, I appreciated what you were saying. I dont know you personally but I love you the you in your blogs!

    Thank you

  10. Penelope Trunk
    Penelope Trunk says:

    Hi, everyone. Thank you for your comments. I feel like as a group, all of my 9/11 posts and your comments on the posts are a small, living memorial to the day. Thank you for building this with me. It’s a nice way for me to remember the day each year. With you. I really appreciate having that.

    And, also, I am checking comments all day on my phone!


  11. Gary
    Gary says:

    I am still heartbroken for all the deaths, the maimed and otherwise disabled (many mentally, I’m sure). But we need to remember there were also thousands of survivors like you, who were able to move on and continue with “normal” life. I’m glad it made you who and what you are today. I love you, Sissy.

  12. Benjamin
    Benjamin says:

    Once again you’ve shared insight gained from personal experience that reaffirms that there’s no one sized, fits all solution to how we choose to live our lives and deal with the hands that are we’re given. Thanks again for having the courage to lay it on the line, despite all of the contrary advice we hear concerning “mindfulness” and the need to disconnect.

  13. Michael
    Michael says:

    I’m tearful about what you lived through Penelope and the tears are GOOD because they have gratitude and feeling in them for the way you write and use your life to help other people live. A cell phone…and courage…you’re doing what works for you. Thank you for telling your story. It matters and makes a difference.

  14. David Yakobovitch
    David Yakobovitch says:

    It sounds to me, Penelope, that 9/11 has caused a shift in your vision, and each year you are healing yourself and others with this shift. A post today in memoriam, a conversation on the phone for 15 minutes in the present, and a looking forward to the future for one more year with your kids, and family. Continue your journey from anxiety to the freedom, the liberating feeling that talking on the phone does to ground you into the now. This moment is all that matters. Love and light, David

  15. Amber Lilyestrom
    Amber Lilyestrom says:


    I recently had a scary experience with my c-section. I couldn’t breathe. I thought I was going to die. And you’re right. The only thing I thought of was my family. My daughter and how I would miss meeting her and not seeing her grow up. And my husband and how amazing he is and what a wonderful father he would be to her…and of my parents in the waiting room. It was horrific and sad, but also peaceful, like you say here.

    Still working through this, but on maternity leave and home, with my family…and extremely grateful for this fact.

    Thanks for sharing.

    Amber L.

  16. Sarah
    Sarah says:

    This post truly speaks to the tagline of your site – the intersection of work and life. For so many people, 9/11 changed that intersection. It was a life-altering event that changed people’s purpose, their values, their meaning. And so it changed the way they approach work and the way they live.

    I read this post on my phone as I was lying in bed this morning. Thank you for this thoughtful post!

  17. Ari Herzog
    Ari Herzog says:

    There is a difference to me between not carrying a phone enabling you to talk and text vs not carrying a phone enabling you to do anything you can do on any computer.

    I used to carry the latter. It grew cumbersome because I always had a computer in my pocket. I now carry the former. While it can do data I primarily use the phone for talking and texting. I’m unplugged without being totally unplugged.

  18. mh
    mh says:

    I was traveling out of the country on 9-11. I didn’t hear about it until it was all over. I’m a Myers-Briggs INTJ. Reading this post sheds a little light, but I still don’t think I’ll ever get it at a gut level. I did realize my family would be worried about me, but I never thought to be worried about them. I knew they were safe and far from the impact sites. Reading the post and comments helps.

    Does it make me less American, to have missed this American experience? Rhetorical and introspective; not wanting an answer.

  19. Joselle
    Joselle says:

    I don’t know how women breastfed before iPhones. I seriously could not get through sitting or lying around feeding my baby so frequently if I didn’t have an iPhone. I love exclusively breastfeeding because it’s my time to just read and cuddle up with the baby. I can’t hold a book or magazine and still comfortably breastfeed but I can hold my phone.

    So, I am grateful to my phone for that. Also, like you, I am an anxious person and reading has always calmed me down.

    That being said, when I’m not breastfeeding and my baby is awake and I’m on my phone, that’s a problem. When I don’t even acknowledge that my husband has walked into the room because I’m on my phone, I think of that as a problem. And I often read about unplugging while on my phone instead of engaging with my family, which is just funny and nuts.

    A phone can keep us connected and keep us from being fully present. It all depends. I do think it’s good for me to be mindful about my tech usage but a lot of it is hysteria, like, oh god, the TV!!!! What will happen to the children? So ridiculous.

    • Karen
      Karen says:

      Thank you, Joselle, for writing this! I always feel guilty about my media usage during breastfeeding since breastfeeding is always talked about as a time for bonding with your child. But really, this is the only time I can answer my texts and emails, since having any technology out during play time will result in my baby going nuts on it or throwing a tantrum if I keep it away.
      Thanks also, Penelope, for this post. I’m currently in the phase of being the stay-at-home parent with a pre-schooler and baby, after leaving a high paying job that was too demanding on home time. I constantly feel the burden of wasted potential and a wasted degree, but at the same time, feel guilty that I can’t seem to be fulfilled by raising children. I can rationally acknowledge that raising children is my most important job, but am unable to internalize that doing a good job there is fulfilling. Unfortunately, I’m an ENFJ, and think I fall into the demographic of never being able to be satisfied with work/life balance. I think you have a blurb about that somewhere.
      Anyways, this post was very cathartic for me. I’ve been following your blog for a year now, including the homeschooling blog, which I love, but this is my first comment. Which I wrote while breastfeeding.

  20. zan
    zan says:

    we are all so quick to judge, but we have no idea what another person needs. we don’t know what will guide us to the truth we seek, or tether us to the people we love and the things we need. a cell phone, a tragedy, a blog…we don’t know ’til it’s in our hands, we’re there, we’re in it.

    this year, as with every other year sinve 2001, i’ve spent the last 48 hours watching every minute of programming about 9/11. i live in LA and was here when it happened, watching in disbelief as it unfolded on television, weeping for those who were there, for those who lost their lives and loved ones, for people like you, who came so close. but i’m a native new yorker and, for 12 years, the deep feeling that i should have been there, buried in, and rising from, the dust.

    but we don’t know what will guide us to the truth we seek.

  21. Matt Culkin
    Matt Culkin says:

    This post reminds me of the time, two years ago, that a Dr. accidentally injected Vitamin A into my herniated disc instead of anesthetic. The pain I felt on that table trumped not only any amount of pain I’d felt before, but the amount of pain I was aware could be possible.

    After waking up, I went into deep shock. I remember bawling in a chair. I asked for my iPhone. I remember cuddling it like a blanket. Never after that day would I let someone tell me I’d be better off unplugged.

  22. Angele
    Angele says:

    I am an INFP so cannot understand those of you who have to have your body, mind, spiirit connected to your phone. Taking your kids to the park…now BORING without your phone. Walking the dog….BORING without your head in your phone. On a date….be sure and have your phone in one hand for fear you will miss something more important then the moment you are in. I don’t get it but understand that most of the population do not “get me” and my love of hands free, phone free feeling of my self feeling my surroundings and breathing, breathing, breathing. Pure joy.

    • Joselle
      Joselle says:

      Hmmm, I’m INFP and love my phone. As an introvert, it can be draining giving to a needy baby all day. I love her to death but I’m never alone, which is crucial for an introvert. The phone lets me take little trips in my brain throughout the day. I don’t see what introversion has to do with what you’re saying.

  23. Gary
    Gary says:

    I’m just gonna come out and say it for everyone: my iPhone is a bodily appendage. Don’t judge me; hear me out. In the military, we were trained and drilled to the point our weapon was an appendage, and we felt weird without it. That was done so that in high stress, mentally traumatic times, we didn’t need to think about it, or other tools for that matter, it was part of our nature. Think about your car. The biggest killer of teenagers is motor vehicle crashes. This is due to the fact that, even though he may be good driver, the car is not yet a natural extension of the teen’s mind and body. We older folks can get away with a lot more distractive actions while driving, though it is still dangerous. (Ever notice how a different car feels foreign, and you have to pay a lot more attention to operate it?) My iPhone may be a little plastic, aluminum and glass box, but it has become a necessary extension of my brain. Like an external hard drive, even. Think about it: international phone book, computer with all my documents and bookmarks, about 70 pounds, or 5 stone (I googled that, and used the phone’s calculator app, to almost instantly figure that up, btw) of books. Dictionaries, encyclopediae, you name it. I would have to be a bazillionaire to own everything I need to reference each day, and I can reference a symptom, diagnosis or med within seconds. Blogs, like P’s and others, serve to educate, entertain and extend the bounds of my imagination, which is critical for me to learn and grow; it seemingly makes more room in my brain for knew knowledge to come on board. I guess that’s the definition of intellectual stimulation, but it also helps with balance and wholeness. Social media has also become important, as I have been able to reconnect with many of my close buddies from my service years. I can also keep up with family, friends and colleagues all over the place just by doing a little typing and exchanging photos. So yes, it’s a necessary part of me, and I know I can’t eat it and it would be useless on a deserted island, but I’m not on a desert island. I know it costs some serious coin, but so would maintaining a landline and building the aforementioned library. Aside from all that, it’s a pretty good telephone, as well! Weather radar? Roadmaps? Fuggetaboutit. I’ll give it up when they pry my cold, dead fingers from around it.

  24. Debbie Phillips
    Debbie Phillips says:

    I’m just coming by to say ‘you go, girl’ and I have always and continue to love everything about you, Ms. Penelope. Totally tangentially, my brother died on the day you posted this blog. Everything you said about dying on 9/11 is very comforting to me at this moment. <3 you.

  25. Amanda
    Amanda says:

    “When I was a kid I carried a book wherever I went. People thought, “Oh, she’s so smart,” but it was really a neurotic dependence on words to calm myself down.”

    I know exactly what you mean!

    I love reading your posts – sometimes I totally relate to what you’re saying, other times it’s a totally new idea for me. Either way, you are a joy to read.

  26. Michelle
    Michelle says:

    I’m writing to thank you for the many posts you’ve published about how positive, connected relationships with our coworkers have such a huge impact on the quality of life.

    I left behind my home and my partner to work in a city with a better economy, doing work that has been described as “sweatshop work” for attorneys.

    After thinking about your posts, I’ve made my first order of business to have great relationships with my coworkers, which takes some thought in such high stress environments. And in almost every job I’ve worked since, someone has remarked that our group of workers is the best group they’ve worked in.

    One of the keys has been to honestly give a sh!t about learning the names of my coworkers. This is a big deal when we can get hired, fired, and moved daily. And I have historically been bad with names.

    On Friday I made a pointed effort to confirm that I knew the name of a guy who goes by two names. In doing so I learned a little bit about him, and I do feel more connected to him. On Monday 12 people were killed across town from where we work. Today I learned that my colleague, a veteran, almost walked into that building on Monday just before the shooting started.

    I could have felt like a shit for not taking a moment to do something so simple to connect with a guy I sit near. But I took the moment, and he took his usual route to work.

    It’s rare for me to have an opportunity to see how close I came to having such a very big regret – if I hadn’t asked, if he had gone on impulse to run a quick errand on the way to work.

    It shook me up enough to realize that although I have been getting value out of your posts, your reading, synthesis, and advice, I had yet to thank you.

    Thank you.

  27. Danny
    Danny says:

    >I don’t know how people deal with intellectual boredom.

    A few:
    > Doing things that terrify me
    > Appreciating everything I have and celebrating small things
    > Making a stranger feel good about his- or herself

  28. Dennis
    Dennis says:

    In 2005 I left a company in which I worked for five years on phone applications…and decided to get away from cell/smart phones. I actually dropped my service and put the phone in a drawer. The first week was a little hard but after that I did not miss the phone…it was nice not having to carry it everwhere and having to charge it up each night, and not being called at anytime during the day. My new coworkers could not believe that I did not have a cell phone. One of the things that I noticed was how others were slaves to their phones.. if the phone rang they would answer it at lunch, dinner, driving, walking, in the bathroom, in the exercise room, etc…After about three years I did end up getting a phone due to increased travel, but I keep the ringer off during most of my day…I use the phone when I need to use it and it does not interupt me.

Comments are closed.