Science will eventually bring a medical solution to the COVID-19 crisis. Finding the personal resilience to navigate the “new normal” in a post-coronavirus world may in some ways be harder, but it can be done. While some may appear to effortlessly move on, picking up where they left off, for many — those who have lost a loved one, or their economic security, or even the security of feeling their family is safe from harm — moving on from the 2020 pandemic may seem an insurmountable obstacle.
I have felt the frustration of not being able to “move on” from a traumatic experience, as well as the shame of seemingly lacking resilience. I was the head of Boston’s Logan Airport on Sept. 11, 2001. On my watch, American Flight 11 and United Flight 175 were hijacked and flown into the World Trade Center. Within days, I was publicly singled out and blamed for alleged security weaknesses allowing the 9/11 attacks. The state’s governor forced me to resign, derailing my career. Then a grieving 9/11 widow sued me for wrongful death, asking a court to hold me personally responsible for her husband’s murder.
My life was completely shattered.
Yet all around me were voices encouraging me to move on. “It was just politics,” they said. “You have a wonderful family,” they encouraged. “Put it behind you,” they urged.
I couldn’t. To me, slamming a metaphorical door on the past was impossible. Over time, though, I discovered there is an important difference between moving on and moving forward. I learned that the experience of true resilience is far different than the societal expectation of “bouncing back.” I stopped pushing away the overwhelming feelings of grief in the interest of appearing “strong.” I found that showing — and receiving — compassion and empathy made all the difference.
The metaphor I use for resilience is sea glass. I’ve long collected the white, green and, if I am ever so lucky to find it, crystal blue smoothed glass on New England’s beaches at low tide. The bottle tossed into the sea, broken apart by the motion of the waves, no longer resembles the form it had before.
After 9/11, I came to understand that, like that bottle, I was changed forever. Just as surely as the health care workers on the frontlines will be. Or the grown child unable to spare their elderly parent from a virus-ravaged nursing home. Or the governor making the hard call of shutting down businesses that may never reopen. We will all be changed forever by this pandemic, yet, like sea glass, what remains will be of great value, and capable of bringing meaning and joy. Might that not be a different way, a truer way, of defining resilience?
I also have not “moved on” from 9/11. I have moved forward, just as we will move forward from today’s crisis. The difference? We can move forward when we acknowledge that we carry the whole of our stories with us, the painful as well as the joyful moments, building a future cognizant of its foundation of loss.
For many years, I suppressed the deep feelings of grief and despair that the World Trade Center attacks and their subsequent blame evoked. But keeping my emotions at a distance, carried like a freight elevator stuck deep in my subconscious, meant I was stuck too. Only by allowing myself, finally, to fully experience my sadness, was I able to fully experience moments of joy.
Finally, as I moved forward, I was carried by the kindness and compassion of others, including families of 9/11 victims. As I grappled with the trauma of being blamed for the terrorist attacks, I met with one mom who lost her only daughter on one of the planes. She looked me straight in the eye and urged me to build a meaningful life in her daughter’s name. Another widow wrote to me and assured me she knew I did all I could. Even strangers have recognized me and simply said thank you for the work we did trying to prepare Logan Airport for a post-9/11 world. I try every day to pay that unexpected and healing sense of compassion forward.
Nearly 20 years after 9/11, I continue to parse the lessons of my story and offer them in the hope that they are of use as we face a “new normal,” moving forward together with the resilience of sea glass.
Virginia Buckingham was the seventh of eight children born to blue-collar parents. A truly self-made success story, Buckingham has lived in Massachusetts for nearly 40 years and spent many of those shattering glass ceilings: She was the first woman to serve as chief of staff to two consecutive Massachusetts governors and was subsequently the first woman appointed to head that state’s Port Authority, owner and operator of Logan International Airport. She has also worked as a deputy editorial page editor and columnist for the Boston Herald. In 2015, Buckingham was selected for the inaugural class of Presidential Leadership Scholars, a joint initiative of the presidential libraries of Presidents George H. W. Bush, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Lyndon Johnson. Finishing On My Watch was her Presidential Leadership project, a key element of the program, which teaches scholars to apply leadership lessons from those presidencies, such as courage and resilience.
Buckingham is married to Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Justice David Lowy with whom she shares son Jack, 21, daughter Maddy, 18 and the world’s cutest cockapoo, April.