Identity in Crisis

Editor’s Note: Lisa Beamer is the wife of the late Todd Beamer, who was part of the heroic resistance to terrorists aboard United Flight 93 on September 11, 2001. The following article is taken from a speech given by Mrs. Beamer on 9/10/21 at Wheaton College Chapel.

Twenty years ago today, I was on a flight home from a work trip to Rome with my husband, Todd. Some of you may know a bit of what comes next, but since about half of you were born after this story begins, I'll take a step back and fill in some details.

Todd and I both graduated from Wheaton in 1991. We went on to careers in software sales. Todd earned his MBA, we got married, moved to the great state of New Jersey, bought a pretty house, joined a flourishing church, made some great friends, had two adorable little boys with another baby on the way, and she turned out even cuter. We lived right between our extended families in New York and Washington DC and loved the fact that we could see them all often.

Some of this life we had planned for, and some of it sort of just happened. But all of it was more than we could have ever hoped for as we sat as students in Edmond Chapel, wondering how we would get started in this thing called “adulting”, although we didn't call it that then.

We were grateful for the existence that God had given us, and we were cognizant - mostly because of the teaching and example of our parents, and because of all we had been exposed to at Wheaton - of the fact that our life was a gift with a purpose. While we were just getting started, and still had much to be refined, Todd and I were intent on seeking God, and loving people as best we could through the life He had given us.

Perhaps what I cherished most about that time, was watching Todd be a dad and knowing that my boys were being raised by the best. Of course, this matters to any mom, but it was especially poignant to me. When I was 15 my own father had died suddenly, leaving my mom to raise four children by herself. I knew how hard this was, both for her and for us, and I knew the grief of what it felt like to live with a missing piece. My heart often overflowed as I relished knowing that my boys knew only completeness.

Getting back to our flight home from Rome, we landed, picked the boys up at my mom's, and arrived home that evening thoroughly exhausted. Todd gave the boys a bath, I unpacked a bit, and we went to bed.

Todd, being a thoroughly dedicated employee and probably a bit crazy, was up at 6 a.m. the next morning and out to catch a flight to meet a client at his company's headquarters in San Francisco. The plane never arrived in California of course, as it was one of four that day which was overtaken by terrorists and crashed, killing everyone on board.

Because Todd and other passengers had placed phone calls from the plane, it became known almost immediately that the passengers and crew on his flight had staged a counterattack in an attempt to regain control of the plane from the terrorists.

Todd's role became particularly noteworthy, because his call was routed to an operator in Chicago who spoke to him for about 15 minutes as he described what was happening and tried to get information that might help them. She eventually prayed with him and listened as he and a team of other men plotted and executed their plan. Her reports of the call were quickly seized on by the media as one moment of strength and resilience in what was otherwise a horrific news cycle, and Todd became a national hero within 72 hours of his death.

I can only describe what happened next as divinely orchestrated chaos; and I do believe that. Everyone from the White House, to CNN, to Oprah Winfrey wanted to talk to me, wanted to know more about Todd, wanted to put me on TV, wanted to take pictures of my family, wanted to know how I was coping. The phone rang non-stop for days and weeks, and when there was a knock at the door, it may have been anyone from a neighbor delivering dinner to a full news crew with cameras rolling.

To say that neither I nor anyone in my circle of family and friends had any frame of reference to manage what was happening is an understatement, but that does not mean that I ever felt out of control. God used certain clearly ordained touch points to show me quickly that there were pieces of this that could be used to share His gospel, and to the extent that I could bear it, I should engage in opportunities to point to Him.

The operator mentioning that Todd had asked her to pray the Lord's Prayer and Psalm 23 with him was something everyone asked about. When she said that he was so calm through the conversation that she initially doubted the severity of his circumstances, they wanted to know why. I answered those questions the only way that rang true to me: “Because Todd loved his life, but he knew that his life was much more than his 32 years on this earth. His soul was secure even when his body wasn't because Jesus was his Savior.”

These questions quickly grew to become focused on me. “How are you not falling apart?” “Where does your peace come from?”

I answered these questions as truthfully as I could too. “I'm sure of God's love and provision for Todd, and I'm sure of God's love and provision for me and my children.” The weeks and months after September 11th were a particular time of vulnerability, and many people were open to consider these points in a way that would not last. God spoke this truth into my heart, giving me courage and purpose. He provided wisdom and words far beyond my own, and enough clear signs of His presence that I could never doubt that He was at work.

And yet Todd was gone. My family's completeness was gone. I was now called a widow and a single parent, titles that literally made me sick to my stomach. My sweet husband had become a mythic figure to the public, an idealized version of manhood who died valiantly defending his country. People revered me too, putting me on a pedestal as God's chosen woman for such a time as this. Others were not as charitable, deriding me for trying to grab fame for my husband's demise. Since Mark Zuckerberg was only 17 in 2001, the power of social media had yet to be unleashed, which kept me somewhat more protected from both praise and criticism than would be true today, but even so I was painfully aware of both.

I found myself forced into a most significant identity crisis. I actually looked up the definition to be sure I was using the right words, and here's what I found: “A period of uncertainty and confusion, in which a person's sense of identity becomes insecure, typically due to a change in their expected aims or role in society.”

Yup, that was it.

I know that identity is a big deal today but growing up in the 70s and 80s I'm not sure I ever heard the term used to describe the essence of self, and I definitely never considered my own identity per se, until much later in adulthood. But that's not to say that as I grew, I didn't have an increasing sense of who I was, what forces drove me, both good and bad, and possibly, even a small inkling into why I was ever born to begin with. This foundational knowledge of my who, what, and why, anchored by something even greater, was my saving grace in navigating the unpredicted and unwanted circumstances I found myself in after September 11th.

I had two big areas to sort out. One was more external: how could I push back on the false identities that the world was trying to put on me? I was not a saintly superhero of American Christianity, nor was I a conniving hypocrite.

The other was more internal: how could I make peace with the loss of the role that I wanted and expected; wife with my children's father as my partner, and instead embraced the one I actually had; widow and single parent?

My work was different for each, and of course one took a lot longer to resolve than the other, but both processes made me more firmly convinced that the titles we have, the talents we’re given, the roles we play, the labels the world puts on us, the people we come from, and even the innermost desires of our hearts, cannot be the core of our identity. These are only layers on top of the core. The core of healthy human identity is a thorough rooting in God's goodness, and in His greatness.

Thorough rooting in God's goodness, allows us to love and be loved without reserve. Thorough rooting in God's greatness requires us to check ourselves with humility. The balance of both is a core identity that produces healthy and useful humanity, in any place, at any time, under any circumstance. With a thorough rooting in God's goodness, and in His greatness, we can then explore and make peace with our outer layers, so we can serve His purposes well through our unique intersection of talents and deficits, experiences, and history.

I had a number of “Aha” moments while a student at Wheaton, but one I remember most clearly, happened while I was speed reading through Romans one night for New Testament homework. Been there! I had been struggling with the ‘whys’ of my father's death a few years earlier, and though it wasn't too visible, my spirit had developed an edge of bitterness, both towards God and towards people who had what I didn't. I wasn't really interested in addressing that bitterness, but that night Paul's use in Romans 11 of Isaiah's worship, grabbed my attention:

“Oh, what a wonderful God we have! How great are His riches and wisdom and knowledge! How impossible it is for us to understand His decisions and His methods! For who can know what the Lord is thinking? Who knows enough to be His counselor? And who could ever give Him so much that He would have to pay it back? For everything comes from Him. Everything exists by His power and is intended but for His glory. To Him be glory ever more.”

For me, God's grace in that moment planted the seed