As I watched the towers—and the world as we knew it—come crashing down last year, I called my kids to watch it with me. They did so in silence, sensing, I think, how monumental this act of war was. Perhaps it was the wrong decision, but I wanted to make sure they remembered September 11.
Yet the horror that was so stark on that first day was soon overshadowed by the stories of heroism. Firemen walked up the stairs to their deaths, passing others streaming down. Two stockbrokers carried their co-worker in her wheelchair down 90 flights of stairs. Todd Beamer recited the Lord’s Prayer right before he rallied his co-passengers with “Let’s Roll!”. And 24-year-old equities trader Welles Crowther donned a red bandanna rushed from floor to floor guiding others, blinded by smoke, to exits. He, too, was last seen climbing the stairs.
It's those heroes we remember, much more so than the monsters that perpetrated the evil. I must admit I've spent precious little time over the last few years pondering Mohammed Atta, and lots of time musing about Todd Beamer, Rudy Giuliani, or the men of Ladder 12. The reason they are so memorable, I think, is that they, rather than the terrorists, embody true humanity.
None of those individuals, though, set out to be heroes. They wanted to get home to their wives and kids as much as anyone else did. But they made their choices. They chose virtue, while the terrorists chose evil, just as terrorists have done since in Beslan, Madrid, Bali, and Moscow. September 11 was only the first to remind us all too vividly that evil is real. Yet though evil is most visible in barbaric acts as these, it rarely just erupts on the scene. On the contrary, it is cultivated in far smaller acts in our daily lives.
All character, whether good or bad, is formed by the choices we make in the little things. When we face a choice, if we choose right, virtue becomes a part of who we are. Good character, you see, is made, not born. Few kids develop good character by themselves; most need parents to point them towards that narrow road which, all too frequently now, is becoming less travelled by. This, too, is done in a series of small choices as we raise our kids. When we stop our kids from calling each other names, confront them when they’re drowning in self-pity, or encourage them to share, we’re cultivating virtue. Unfortunately, it takes a lot of work! It’s easier to let things slide, to let the kids have petty fights, to listen to our teen gossip on the phone or to watch them exclude a neighbor without intervening. Yet when we do so, we’re teaching them to disregard others and to focus on themselves. We are cultivating selfishness, not goodness.
Hard as it is to teach them right, it’s even harder to model it! It means not griping about our boss, not cheating on our taxes, even loving and forging our spouse when we’re ready to tear someone’s head off.
If we have the stamina for this job, though, the payoff in future generations will be immense. For if our kids learn to choose right in the little things, then when the big things come they will also choose right. They will be faithful spouses. They will be loving, responsible parents. They will be honest neighbours. They will be caring citizens. They will be saving others from tears, heartache or hardship as much as those on Flight 93 saved the targeted victims in Washington. For when we cultivate virtue in our kids, we aren’t just teaching them to be kind; we are creating our future world.