The telephone rang shortly after 6 a.m., brusquely waking me from a deep, dreamless sleep. It was a Tuesday morning in September, and I did not have to be up and out of bed for at least another hour.
“Who the heck is calling me so early?” I thought, as I drowsily cursed the telephone perched on my nightstand.
“Joey, are you awake?”
I was still half-asleep, but recognized the voice immediately. I knew only one person who called me Joey, and that person spoke with a distinctive Galician accent. Iñaki was calling me from his transplanted home in Stockholm. Seeing that I live in Vancouver, ordinarily I might have been alarmed by a 6 a.m. phone call from someone who lives nine time zones away. On this particular morning, however, the call was not entirely unexpected.
The next day I was scheduled to fly to Stockholm for a two-week holiday. I had planned to stay with my old university buddy, and together we were going to check out the city and some of the islands in the Stockholm archipelago. I figured that Iñaki was calling me to sort out some last-minute travel details, and innocently misjudged the time difference between Vancouver and Stockholm. That, or he had mistakenly assumed I was a morning person.
“Hey Iñaki, yeah I’m up. How are you?” I replied, groggily trying out my voice for the first time that day.
“Have you heard the news?” he said, rather abruptly.
“Um, no, what’s up?”
“New York has been bombed. Turn on your television.”
Certain historic events have such gravity that the exact moment you hear about them becomes forever crystalized in your memory: the assassination of President Kennedy; the first manned mission to land on the moon; the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster; the fall of the Berlin Wall; and the death of Princess Diana are some notable examples. Depending on your age, you may be able to recall with astonishing clarity where you were and what you were doing when you first heard about them.
Unquestionably, one of the biggest “where were you when” moments in recent history is the al-Qaeda terrorist attacks on the United States that occurred on the morning of Tuesday, September 11, 2001. My own memory of that fateful day will be forever linked to an early-morning wake-up call from Stockholm, and those surreal words delivered in a familiar Galician accent: “New York has been bombed. Turn on your television.”
The airspaces of the United States and Canada were closed for three days following 9/11, which grounded my flight. Once air travel resumed, I thought it prudent to postpone my trip for a while. I did not know it then, but a whole year would pass before I made it over to Sweden. And by then, the events of 9/11 had already started a ripple effect that would shape the rest of my life; one that was triggered by a relatively minor inconvenience on that Tuesday morning — I did not have a television to turn on.
Television has never been a big vice of mine. By choice, I went through most of my 20s and 30s without owning a TV. On September 11, 2001, not only did I not have a television at home, I didn’t seek one out either. In fact, two weeks would pass before I watched any television coverage of 9/11. This was unintentional; I wasn’t trying to cocoon myself from the horrific details of that day. It just so happened that I got the news through other means: I listened to the radio and read the newspaper, and shared information with family, friends and colleagues.
Going without television meant that I didn’t see any video broadcasts of the planes crashing into the sides of the twin towers, the plumes of black smoke billowing into the clear blue sky, or the two giant edifices collapsing to the ground in a mountain of ash and rubble. During those two weeks, my only visual experience of these events was through photographs that appeared in newspaper stories and magazine articles. These images made an indelible mark on me — one that quite possibly was amplified by my abstinence from TV.
One photo that I found especially haunting is now considered to be one of the most iconic images from 9/11. Taken by Richard Drew, The Falling Man shows an unidentified man falling from the upper levels of the North Tower of the World Trade Center. The photo gives the impression the man is in a rigid headfirst dive, with one leg slightly bent, and his body in near-perfect symmetry with the stark skyscraper behind him (a series of other photos reveals that he is actually tumbling through the air). The photograph is difficult to look at. It is bleak and disturbing. However, it is also somehow cathartic. Its harsh imagery is the very thing that lets you connect, on a purely visceral level, with the horrors of that day.
I was fascinated by the capacity of photographs like The Falling Man to visually communicate the raw human emotions associated with 9/11. Not only were they able to convey emotion to me, but elicit it in me as well. Moreover, if they had evoked such strong emotion in me, then surely they had affected others too. A short time later, these thoughts provided the spark for an idea: why not use the power of photography to evoke more positive emotions in others? I was curious if photography could serve as a force for good by spreading love and kindness outward into the world. I made it my mission to find out.
This is an excerpt from the introduction to The High Road, a series of lessons on how to find your purpose and live it out loud. Download the complete introduction for free here. In it, you will learn what it means to live with purpose – and how doing so can transform your life.