From an early age, I was encouraged to make mathematics a primary focus of my education. I don’t know whether I had a knack for it, or if it was just the nature of the “science & technology” age. I know it did not always come easily to me – I remember struggling over fractions, and again in trigonometry. Amusingly enough, although differential equations seemed like rote memorization to me, applying them in some meaningful way (such as to electrical networks) seemed impossible. I guess that was when I began to understand that I’m much better with theory than with application.
At any rate, I was taught that “zero” was “naught” – nothing… an absence of anything. Zero was considered valueless – losers were referred to as “a big fat zero”.
I remember when 9-11 happened in America, there was suddenly a new term in the media: Ground Zero. It was not entirely a new term to me – I vaguely knew that it was used in military language – my thinking was that it was used to identify a target… the center focal point for an attack. It was somewhat mystifying to me that it was being used by American media to describe the New York attack on 9/11/2001 – based on my understanding, the World Trade Center Towers would have been “Ground Zero” for the terrorists, not for us.
The morning of 9/11/2001, I got up and went to work as on any working day. That day, I was employed by the local Christian bookstore, having taken a respite from my career after suffering somewhat of a breakdown. I was opening the store that day, so I was alone stocking a display of inspirational cards when a customer came through the door. “Did you hear what happened?” he asked. “No,” I replied. “I’ve been in here and we don’t have radio or TV.” He paused, then said, “An airplane crashed into the World Trade Center.” I pondered this, thinking it must have been a wayward private plane or something, since commercial low-level flight patterns don’t go near downtown New York City. “Was it a Cessna?” I asked, recalling my one experience flying in such a craft. “I don’t know,” he said. “They just said it was an airplane.” He began perusing the gift area, and I returned to stocking the cards.
After awhile, my curiosity got the best of me, and I went in the back to find a radio. It was not difficult to tune in one of the major networks – ABC, I believe. Before long, I’d heard of another plane crashing into the Pentagon – another commercial plane – and my thinking was, “This must be a major attack.” A little while longer, and a second plane struck the Towers, and I thought, “Maybe this is the end…” News of another plane crashing in Pennsylvania only served to deepen my concerns.
When the first Tower came down, my mind was reeling. How many people must have been inside? Tens of thousands, by my estimation. How could an entire skyscraper like that come down from such a small portion of it being on fire? It went against everything I understood about engineering and physics. By the time the second Tower came down, all of us were in shock. Enough time had passed that we no longer feared this to be Armageddon, but we dreaded hearing the death toll, knowing the numbers had to be high.
I was scheduled to work a full day, so it was later in the evening before I saw the images of the attacks. In some ways, I’m grateful to have been spared the endless repeating visual of the impact of each plane on the Twin Towers, the terrible destruction of each building, and the dust and debris covering ghostly images of the people wandering the streets in NYC. I’m told that the videos were played over and over throughout the day – horrible images of people leaping to their deaths from fiery windows before the buildings came down. I remember going to bed praying about whether I should travel to New York to try to assist somehow with recovery efforts there.
The weeks that ensued were painful but inspiring. Over and over, we heard people recount the events of that fateful day. Heroic stories of police and firefighters – many of them sacrificing their own lives in efforts to help people escape the buildings. Brave families appealing to the audience for clues to the whereabouts of their missing loved ones. Endless details of what was happening at Ground Zero as rescue and recovery efforts began.
In the moments after the Towers came down, I am sure I was not the only one who felt helpless and vulnerable – powerless to stop the devastation as it unfolded. By the end of the day, we felt like we had been reduced to nothing. Ground Zero seemed like an appropriate name in that all that we had been so confident in – our military defense capability, our prospering economy, our national pride – was, at least for that evening, taken away.
But the next day was a new day. Ground Zero soon became a source of national pride as girder by girder, block by block, the debris was taken away and families were able to grieve those lost. Those who had survived had wonderful stories of bravery and persistence. As the weeks and months went by, we felt our country rising from the ashes – unified in so many ways by this tragedy in which we all had shared.
Today, I no longer view “zero” as a lack. I view it as a clean slate; a beginning and an end. Depression and psychosis in many ways reduced me to “nothing”, but I do not view this as a bad thing. Rather, it put to an end things negative which came before, and gives me another chance to take a stab at this thing called life. Each day is a fresh page. Today, I get to decide what I will write upon it.