Finding Our Footing

Author’s Note: This story is a variation of one I’ve revised and republished for 19 years. I’ll keep revising and republishing it for the next 19 … or for as long as I’m able and for as long as the need remains to revise and republish it. This year also marks the 19th year this piece has been rejected by The Hartford Courant, which tells you everything you need to know about The Hartford Courant. Never forget.

In his book, The Life of Reason, the American philosopher, poet, novelist, and critic George Santayana (1863–1952) wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to fulfill it.” Nineteen years after September 11, 2001, the matter is not whether we remember our past — but what we do with the memory.

The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and United Airlines Flight 93 marked the end of our innocence or at least our insular naïveté. We became citizens of the world’s vulnerability for the first time in nearly 60 years. We found grief and hope in the stories of loss and survival, happenstance and heroism, frailty, and courage.

We were served notice to take care of our own, while we can — at home, in the workplace, and in the world. We were taught the brutal actuality of a terrorist attack that claimed thousands of lives, destroyed billions of dollars in property, and wreaked havoc with our systems of transportation and communication, expectation and faith, normalcy, and reason. We continue to face a realization equally brutal, disarmingly real, and politically contentious: The continuing terrorist conflicts in Europe, the Middle East, and elsewhere notwithstanding, such an attack could happen again.

Steady Habits

Should this be cause for morbid apprehension or constant alarm? Clearly not. We won’t permit it. Even if the threat of another 9/11 warranted such edgy anticipation, we will not abide long-term interruption of our traditional distractions. We will not be kept from the comfort of our daily routines, from the trivialities of our political quibbling, from our preoccupations with celebrity, notoriety, and the pursuit of things material and superficial.

We’re Americans. We’ve earned the right to indulge ourselves in any way we see fit, thank you very much. Because we’re pragmatists, we’ll keep an eye on the news and social media, even if we don’t believe most of what we see. Because we’re idealists, we won’t do so at the expense of Dr. Pimple Popper, Real Housewives, and QVC.

We Get It

In remembering the past, two seemingly unrelated but beautifully American questions obtain. The first was asked on Monday, September 10, 2001. At a benefit performance by the jazz pianist Marcus Roberts, which I attended, a questioner asked, “What is jazz?” Marcus answered readily and succinctly, “Jazz is the history of a people expressing itself through adversity. It’s about living on the edge and maintaining sure footing.”

It’s arguable that — in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the chaos of race relations, the proliferation of every special interest imaginable, and the political divisiveness that seems to characterize us at the moment — we’re expressing ourselves through adversity right now. We surely seem to be living on the edge. But we will maintain our footing.

The second question has been asked repeatedly since the day that followed. In 2001, America was attacked by religious fundamentalist terrorists. In 2020, America is being attacked by roving hordes of spoiled children with pathological senses of entitlement, first-world complacency, a willful ignorance of history, and wanton appetites for destruction. In the aftermath of the former, we asked — and in the midst of the latter we continue to ask — “What do we do now?” The second answer is the same as the first, as ready and succinct: We express ourselves through adversity. We live on the edge and maintain our footing.

We do this by recognizing the luxury to which we’ve become accustomed in the United States:

  • Recognizing our right to be opinionated sarcastic, cynical, petty, superficial, materialistic, and unreflective — and to manifest all other evidence of our philosophical ennui — is an absolute luxury.
  • Recognizing our right to fritter our attention on form over substance, on the peccadilloes and proselytizing of entertainers, on the purchasing patterns of consumers, on the past weekend’s box-office receipts, and on all other evidence of our societal boredom is an absolute luxury.
  • Recognizing our right to create the demand that begets the supply of infomercials for Hydroxycut, Crépe Erase, BioSlim, Atkins, Keto, South Beach, Paleo, CBD-Everything, and every other evidentiary manifestation of our capacities for self-absorption and self-delusion are absolute luxuries.
  • Recognizing our right to agonize over the isms that divide rather than unite us is an absolute luxury.
  • Recognizing the right to have a country free and open enough to make the attack of 9/11 possible is an absolute luxury.

Realistic Idealism

Nineteen years after the attack, after transforming 9/11 into yet another made-for-TV event — in between the latest political side-swipes and stock-market reports, before the latest iterations of 90Day Fiancé, Darcey & Stacey, Chopped, and the must-see syndicated re-runs of Seinfeld and Friends — we maintain our footing through faith in the resolve that never leaves Americans. As we exercise our luxurious indulgences, we remain watchful over those with whom we work and share life every day.

Mindful of the past, we combine our idealistic conviction that, as Americans, we will prevail, with our pragmatic understanding that even idealism needs a Plan B. With neither morbid apprehension nor undue alarm, we maintain our footing through the shared though unstated conviction that — should the need arise again — we will do what otherwise opinionated, sarcastic, cynical, petty, superficial, materialistic, unreflective, bored, self-absorbed, self-deluded, divided, and free Americans do:

  • We will come together in strength and determination to protect those rights and that freedom.
  • We will instantly abandon our self-absorption to extend every healing hand to every hand harmed in any way by this consequence of our determination to live freely.
  • We will instantly forget our boredom, reflecting only on those who need whatever help we can give, literally — be it blood, sweat, cash, comfort, or hope.
  • We will instantly swap materialism for materials, sending equipment, food, clothing, and whatever else is needed on the front lines of the most immediate battle in this newly declared war.
  • We will drop our luxurious pettiness to stand united and prepare ourselves for the sacrifices we will be asked to make in protecting our rights and our freedom.
  • We will turn on our televisions and see citizens of every stripe, age, persuasion, and profession proudly calling themselves Americans.
  • We will save the energy it takes to be sarcastic and cynical because we know it will be needed later. While the illusions of peace might incline us to squander that energy on ourselves, we dare not cheat our fellow Americans should they need it.

United We Stand

The British writer and critic, L.P. Hartley (1895–1972), said famously, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” September 11, 2001, proved the future will be equally foreign. They do things differently, quite unpredictably, and sometimes brutally there. They did something equally unpredictable and brutal here. We will remember. But we will remember in our own way.

Go ahead and call us opinionated, sarcastic, cynical, petty, superficial, materialistic, unreflective, bored, self-absorbed, and divided. We are. We’ve earned every one of the absolute rights we have to be so — and to work out our problems in our own way and time.

We’re free. As a free people, we express ourselves through adversity, just as we expressed ourselves through the adversity visited on us from the skies on Tuesday, September 11, 2001.

And we will maintain our footing. We will. We do. We’re Americans.

If you doubt, test us.


Mark O'Brien
Mark O'Brien
I’m a business owner. My company — O’Brien Communications Group (OCG) — is a B2B brand-management and marketing-communication firm that helps companies position their brands effectively and persuasively in industries as diverse as: Insurance, Financial Services, Senior Living, Manufacturing, Construction, and Nonprofit. We do our work so well that seven of the companies (brands) we’ve represented have been acquired by other companies. OCG is different because our business model is different. We don’t bill by the hour or the project. We don’t bill by time or materials. We don’t mark anything up. We don’t take media commissions. We pass through every expense incurred on behalf of our clients at net. We scope the work, price the work, put beginning and end dates on our engagements, and charge flat, consistent fees every month for the terms of the engagements. I’m also a writer by calling and an Irish storyteller by nature. In addition to writing posts for my company’s blog, I’m a frequent publisher on LinkedIn and Medium. And I’ve published three books for children, numerous short stories, and other works, all of which are available on Amazon under my full name, Mark Nelson O’Brien.

DO YOU HAVE THE "WRITE" STUFF? If you’re ready to share your wisdom of experience, we’re ready to share it with our massive global audience – by giving you the opportunity to become a published Contributor on our award-winning Site with (your own byline). And who knows? – it may be your first step in discovering your “hidden Hemmingway”. LEARN MORE HERE


  1. Mark — Our dear friend Kimberly stumbled over the same sentence that I did:

    “America is being attacked by roving hordes of spoiled children with pathological senses of entitlement, first-world complacency, a willful ignorance of history, and wanton appetites for destruction.”

    When I read that, I sarcastically typed in the reply box, “You mean America’s white supremacists and the various names by which they’re known?” But then I deleted the whole note with a “Why bother? If Mark had meant W.S., he wouldn’t have been so oblique about it.” I respect you deeply as a thinker and as someone who cares about our country – and I know that if I ever needed help, you would be the first person to show up at my door – but I simply could not fathom how you could paint today’s protests with a single industrial-sized roller brush. I thought, “When did my friend start writing for FOX ‘News’?”

    The other point I tripped over was the repetitive use of “we.” I think I know what you were trying to get at: if a foreign power treads on us, “we” will come together. I wish I shared your optimism. In our last great struggle as a nation, World War II, “we” did not come together. The history books like to paint a red, white and blue picture, but during the conflict, Black Americans were notably segregated and largely subjected to secondary roles; we interred second generation Japanese Americans in camps because they had the face of the enemy; and factory labor struck industry a number of times. How “we” of us. Ironically, the 442nd combat group — all Japanese Americans — was THE most decorated unit during the war. The 92nd combat group — largely all Black Americans, and the only Black American combat unit — is credited with turning the tide in the Italian campaign.

    “America” as an idea is great, but in reality, a deep river of prejudice and intolerance runs through our geographic veins. Always has.

    • Jeff, thank you for your comments and for knowing I’d be there to help you, regardless of circumstances.

      You and I are the poster boys for Kenneth Burke’s take on ideology: “An ‘ideology’ is like a spirit taking up its abode in a body: it makes that body hop around in certain ways: and that same body would have hopped around in different ways had a different ideology happened to inhabit it.” We’re also poster boys for Burke’s concept of terministic screens, which he defines as “composed of terms through which humans perceive the world, and that direct attention away from some interpretations and toward others.”

      You long for a perfect past. I long for an orderly future. The longings of neither of us will ever be satisfied. But I think my chances are better. At the very least, they seem a little more likely to reward hope.

      I can paint today’s protests with a single industrial-sized roller brush by the same logic that Democrat politicians and their acolytes in the liberal media paint the wanton destruction of Federal property — property that belongs to and is paid for by you and me — as peaceful protests. And white supremacy? I know these are conservative sources, which might make them suspect to you, but this looks more like white lunacy to me:

      I do believe the past would have been a lot more fun if you and I could have explored it together. Case in point:

      I imagine our exploring the little-known historical fact that, on his way to Federal Hall to be inaugurated, George Washington spit a huge wad of Juicyfruit on the sidewalk on Wall Street. By your reckoning, we should be preoccupied with going back, initiating impeachment proceedings, and charging him with littering. By my reckoning, we should make goddamn sure no one ever does that again without consequences.

      I do not condone racism. I do not condone blatantly supremacist organizations, white or otherwise. I do not condone hatred of anyone, by anyone. By the same token, I do not condone looting, destruction, rioting, violence, and killing as a response to anything. And I do not believe, however fleetingly, that we’ll build a better future by longing for a corrected past.

      If America as an idea is great (it is), we can’t possibly make its greatness a reality by looking back.

      For the record, if I were to see you right now, COVID notwithstanding, I’d smile, give you a hug, assure you we’re friends, mean every word of it, and be abiding grateful for it.

    • Mark – For the record, I definitely do NOT long for a perfect past, and I honestly don’t understand where you got that from. Just the opposite: I long for people to understand that America’s past never was “perfect.” It was born of an imperfect document – a series of fragile compromises. Hence the need for amendments. If our founders agreed on anything it was that what they were creating was better than what they had been living under with George III. America has been “great” at times, but not for the reasons many or most of those wearing red caps might ascribe to.

      And to this: “If America as an idea is great (it is), we can’t possibly make its greatness a reality by looking back.” AGREE totally, so let’s get busy working together at the federal, state and local levels to solve some of the big problems we’re facing.

      The protests? I hate the violence, and as I have expressed before, the destruction of property. I simply don’t belief we can paint ALL protesters as engaging in those activities. There are undoubtedly opportunists from the left and the right who are engaging in illicit activities and stirring things up for their own purposes, and those activities shouldn’t be condoned. But they also shouldn’t be allowed to cast a shadow on the underlying causes of the protests. I also don’t believe that ALL “Democrat politicians and their acolytes in the liberal media paint the wanton destruction of Federal property — property that belongs to and is paid for by you and me — as peaceful protests.” Some? Qualifiers matter, and when we don’t use them, it paints us into corners. I can’t even say that all personalities at FOX spew the same vitriol as Carlson, Hannity, and Ingraham. I read one of the most liberal papers in the country, but I can’t remember it ever justifying “the wanton destruction of property as peaceful protests.”

      Hugs back at ya.

    • Jeff,

      As you likely know, I met Anne pretty late in my life:

      She’s the perfect spouse for the same reason you’re the perfect friend: Both of you are willing to stand your ground, duke it out, take neither offense nor prisoners, and judge not.

      I love this exchange between the two of us. I do, of course, deserve to be called out on my sweeping generalizations, just as I deserve the right to give everything you express to me the contemplation it (and you) deserve.

      We’re not going to agree on everything. We may not end up agreeing on much. But we do keep pushing each other closer to an equable middle. Life and friendship don’t get any better than that.

      Thank you. My mind is more open and my heart is bigger today, thanks to you.

  2. Mark, I love your writing. I don’t always agree with you, but you always, always make me think more deeply. I don’t know that I agree with the characterization that, “America is being attacked by roving hordes of spoiled children with pathological senses of entitlement, first-world complacency, a willful ignorance of history, and wanton appetites for destruction.” as that, in my mind, ignores the much bigger picture. Yes, there are a few “roving hordes of spoiled children” but the VAST majority of protesters have been peaceful and have very intentionally (and rightfully so) taken a powerful stand for desperately needed change. That (again, in my mind) is more American than anything. But I guess which story you focus on is dependent on which narrative you’re listening to.

    I also don’t know that I agree that we’ve “earned the absolute right” to be “opinionated, sarcastic, cynical, petty, superficial, materialistic, unreflective, bored, self-absorbed, and divided.” Have we? How is that? Why is that a right? Why aren’t we called to be better? Isn’t “better” our vision for ourselves?

    But the fact that I can respect, love and adore you and not agree with you is, absolutely, one of the greatest gifts there is. I’m not sure that I would say that is uniquely American, (even though many would like to believe this), as I’ve experienced this from people all over the world. Maybe it’s uniquely human. And that, I believe, is what we should aspire to.

    • Kimberly, I love you. Period. And among the many reasons for that is the fact that you challenge me — to think, to re-think, to be better. I say to the people who come to work at O’Brien Communications Group, “You’re not being paid to say yes to me.” If I presumed for a moment to be correct about everything, I’d be in deep trouble. And if everyone in the world saw and expressed things as I do, the world would be in deep trouble.

      One of my favorite quotes from Albert Einstein is this: “Great spirits have always found violent opposition from mediocrities. The latter cannot understand it when a man does not thoughtlessly submit to hereditary prejudices, but honestly and courageously uses his intelligence and fulfills the duty to express the results of his thought in clear form.” Out of caring and thoughtfulness, you’ve used your intelligence and expressed your thoughts to me in clear form.

      For that, and for your friendship, I’m always grateful.

    • And this, dear friends, is an example of the exchanges for which I have joined BC360.

      Mark, what a love letter to Americans. And to Kimberly.
      Kimberly, you walk your talk and show what disagreeing without being disagreeable looks like.