In my first book, Enjoy The Ride, I make the distinction of never letting the urgent get in the way of the important. I used the tragedy of 9/11 as an example, talking about the importance we must place in our lives as to what is actually meaningful.
So often in life, we allow “urgent” things to get in the way of our faith, spouses, family, parents and health. We often forget to count our blessings, neglect to say “I love you” or to even take the time to inquire about those we love as to how they are feeling. The validation of this point is what transpired on 9/11 to two people, on different flights, who experienced identical incidents.
A friend of mine, Stuart, lives in Denver. Back in 2001, he was working in the marketing department of a food ingredient company. On 9/11, he was scheduled to take a trip to the New York Metropolitan area to present his product to a large baking company.
Travel was a lot looser in those pre-TSA days, so he and his fellow passengers dashed through the ticket counters, hurried through security and made their way to the boarding gate at the new Denver International Airport.
Stuart carried a cell phone, even in those early days, but, in 2001, society had not yet integrated them into our every waking moment like we have today. They were mainly used for brief business calls and occasional personal calls. He and the other passengers jostled for seats as they boarded their United Airlines flight and, almost as soon as they sat down, whipped out an assortment of “urgent” work materials to prepare for meetings and presentations. They had been in the air for about an hour when the pilot came on with an unusual message:
“Ladies and gentlemen, the FAA has just declared an air emergency. There is nothing wrong with the aircraft. We will be landing in Omaha, Nebraska.” What the passengers were not aware of was that Air Traffic Control (ATC) had just instructed the pilot, “Flight 3835, you need to land immediately. The FAA has requested that all aircraft land as soon as possible at the closest airport. You have been cleared to land in Omaha.”
The plane descended quickly. Stuart was an experienced flier. Still, he had never been through such a rapid or efficient landing. Two things then happened in quick succession that he has not experienced since.
Omaha is hardly a huge airport. On 9/11, it resembled a parking lot. There were planes everywhere—certainly many more than there were gates to accommodate them. A surreal sight, indeed. Stranger still was that, once the plane landed, virtually every cell phone on the sold-out cabin rang simultaneously! Wives, husbands, girlfriends, boyfriends and close friends calling and screaming with delight and relief as the oblivious passengers answered their phones.
“Oh my God! Did you hear? Thank God! I love you! I was so worried, about you! The kids want to talk to you!”
Stuart said the passengers all looked at one another in disbelief as the horrific news was told and retold. They were quickly ushered off the plane and into a small concourse jammed with people not knowing where to go or what to do.
I know the intimate details of what the pilots heard on 9/11 from ATC because my wife was a US Airways flight attendant. At the same moment my friend Stuart was making an emergency landing in Omaha, she was making in-flight announcements about the emergency landing they were about to make in Indianapolis instead of their destination, Philadelphia.
Prior to 9/11, my wife had never included among her landing announcements permission for passengers to resume cell phone use. She wasn’t required to. Unlike today, travelers weren’t texting, answering email, watching live sports feeds or checking Facebook. They had no access to the Internet. Mobile device mania had not yet commenced.
But the incident after the emergency landing was unerringly the same: cell phones on her fight began to ring instantaneously.
As my wife recalls, people in the gate area were staring at the televisions, their mouths agape as the images of a jet crashing into the North Tower of the World Trade Center was replayed over and over and over again. While thousands of passengers were glued to their phones sharing the unbelievable with loved ones, at 9:03a.m., hijackers crashed into the WTC South Tower.
As Stuart would learn, his New York-bound flight had taken off only ten or fifteen minutes after those ill-fated flights. Yes, there but for the Grace of God…and he realized it.
It struck both Stuart and my wife that the first voices passengers heard on their cell phones weren’t executives or customers, co-workers or sales reps, but people who loved them. Priorities are often put in place for us whether we welcome them or not. Regrettably, important things take a back seat to urgent meetings and tasks. Understandably, not one person on the planes that day performed their plans according to schedule. However, the world endured—forever changed, certainly, but it continued. On that day, I know two people who experienced firsthand that nothing is more important than giving thanks and telling someone close to you that you love them and that they matter.
Fifteen years later, cell phones have become “urgent clutter” for most of us, often distracting us from what is most precious. They’re unlikely to go away any time soon, of course, and while they can absolutely enhance our lives, our habitual dependence on them for nearly every aspect of our daily function should be cause for alarm.
The wake-up call is this: Do you channel as much time and desperate focus into your loved ones as you do that little device that’s attached to your palm? Let’s never allow the “urgent” to take priority over what’s truly important.