9/11 is personal for most Americans. I am no different. Perhaps being in New York City that horrible day makes my sense of loss a bit more acute. Perhaps all the events surrounding my life at the time does the same. I don't know.
I had just moved to Manhattan a couple weeks before that world-altering event. My wife and I for the year prior were teaching Conversational English in South Korea. It was overall a terrific experience, but some serious health issues related to air quality and physical limitations made the month before our departure from Korea rather tenuous and stressful. Holly was forced to leave early a month earlier than expected (July 2001). She'd recuperate in Florida with her parents while I went to New York City to begin seminary. She'd join me in mid-September.
Union Theological Seminary is on the Upper Westside of Manhattan, some 4 miles north of the Twin Towers though connected by the Subway system as most places in NYC are. My first day of classes was on that unbelievably beautiful Tuesday. That day felt very much like this day as far as the high blue and cloudless skies and the pure, dry and breezy air goes. Maybe just a little cooler.
My first day of classes were cancelled.
I was alone in a new, humongous city just getting my bearings straight before 9/11. When it hit, bearings being straight was beyond the realm of possibility. I did not know what was happening in those moments after the tragedy. I did not know how to flee, which was my natural instinct. Head home due north to Albany where my parents were - that was my first thought. But the City shut down. No car. No cell phone or landline connection. Dazed people walking out of the Subway whose line runs stopped. Sirens wailing. Then, helicopters and military planes flying overhead, the latter of which was hard to differentiate from possible commercial planes like the two that just hit the Towers. All I could do was stay put and pray.
My wife would fly into NYC just a week later on 9/18. Not able to find work in NYC, which was economically depressed for weeks, she’d be forced to move out of the City just a couple months later. She’d eventually enter grad school herself, and we’d live in two locations for awhile.
I did not lose a loved-one on that day, for which I thank the Lord. I in no way compare my losses to the losses experienced by the victims or their loved-ones. But we all lost something that day. I certainly did and in poignant ways.
A loss of innocence and insulation. A loss of a sense of security. A loss of togetherness with Holly in those difficult months and years after 9/11. And maybe more significantly, the loss I experienced all around me in a city drowning in grief, in a nation numbly wading through trauma and loss, in a world that was forever changed.
Then came the wars, one of which continued for almost 20 years. More grief. More loss. More lives forever changed.
Twenty years later, the last war connected to it over (at least as far as we know), we mark 9/11. Yes, “I’m proud to be an American,” as the song says. I am as patriotic as the next guy, I like to think. But I must admit, the strongest feeling I experience remains grief and loss. Maybe an even deadlier and worldwide pandemic effects this. I am sure it does in some indecipherable way.
Related to my sense of grief and loss is the knowledge that we are so disconnected as a people. We are so torn and frayed and ready to lash out. We are as divided as we’ve ever been. 9/11 has not resulted in us being better as a people. We are a shadow of a collective self we always envisioned ourselves to be.
I just finished watching a powerful TV series on HBO-Max titled “Mare of Easttown.” It is a crime drama involving a murder and two disappearances in a small, eastern Pennsylvania town. But is about much more than that. It is about individual and collective grief.
A major theme that develops near the end of the series points to an integral truth. We often experience a severe loss or trauma, and instead of facing and grieving that loss, we lose ourselves in other people’s issues, their losses, and in our work. We transfer our grief onto other things, in other words, to escape the wrenchingly hard work of facing our own grief. No judgment here, but how sadly this effects us, keeping us locked down and preventing us from moving forward!
Could it be that in the wake of our collective loss on 9/11, we transferred our grief onto the almost immediate talk of war followed by multiple wars? Could it be we’ve never fully or properly grieved 9/11 as a people? We went from singing God Bless America on 9/11 to literally battling in front of the doors of the Capitol on 1/6 this year.
As we’ve seen in our history, namely in our never coming to terms with our original sin of slavery and with the Civil War that resulted, not fully grieving collective loss and trauma has dire consequences.
So, as an American and as a pastor, I am profoundly sad these days surrounding September 11th. But in this sadness, I rely on my faith and prayer. I pray as an American living in a nation filled with promise and possibility and progress but held back by collective loss and pain. I pray that we can somehow tap into our shared grief, nourish ourselves in the common bonds therein, and experience healing together. I pray we can somehow, someway begin to actualize again some semblance of compassion and togetherness as a people.
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