This Week's Spiritual Vitamin
Remembering on 9/11
The movie Forrest Gump opens with a feather drifting on a breeze, finally alighting at Forrest’s feet. American Beauty gives viewers the scene of a plastic grocery bag dancing in an alley, and the guy who’d videotaped it saying, “Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world, I feel like I can’t take it, and my heart is just gonna cave in.”
These are images of fragility and tenderness, metaphors for the modern human being: alone, caught up, helpless in history and flux, but nonetheless beautifully, movingly, human. Falling. Rising. Falling again.
Since September 11, 2001, we’ve gotten a lot of that falling feeling, many illusions of certainty torn away since that brutal day. A secure homeland? An ever more prosperous life for each generation? A reasonably functional democracy? No. Only twenty well organized zealots took down the twin towers, murdered 3000, and launched a decade where things were much less solid than we’d hoped.
Most Beloit students were in elementary school then. What was it like to inherit a child’s place in such a world? Though your elders may wisely have protected you from news of that day, they couldn’t possibly shield you from the succeeding decade in which you have come of age. Abu Ghraib and Gitmo. Roadside bombs and PTSD. Katrina and the drowning of New Orleans, the inconvenient truth of a planet heating fast. Financial meltdown and Arab Spring. Hyper partisan politics and utter government dysfunction.
In an age of anxiety and breakdown, we crave stability and certainty. We seek shelter in things still within our control. It’s tempting to avoid this scary world hurtling at us, find some quiet corner in which to be reasonably happy and safe. But we are feathers on that wind whether we admit it or not. There’s no real escape, and besides, ethics insist that we stand up and face responsibility for our place in history.
Another impulse: revenge. Who did this to us? What enemy has pushed us off the edge? We feel a deep urge to locate “evildoers” and destroy them. Osama bin Laden’s face, crossed out by a bloody X on the cover of Time. We find this impulse all across our politics and culture. It’s easy nowadays for demagogues to rouse an angry mob. One camp marches against another with simplistic demonizations on the internet and in the streets.
The anniversary of 9/11 is not simply “history,” not “out there.” It cannot be tucked into the past, left at safe distance in televised ceremonies and op ed pieces. What we learn (and ignore) from this decade will impact our little campus deeply. How each of us responds matters. Beloit College is the real world!
If we solemnly remember victims and honor soldiers, then go right back to business, we’ll miss an opportunity to ask how we choose to live in this time and place. As bewildering, sometimes terrifying, as our moment in history is, we still face the same daily choices faced by every generation: will we live by fear or love, anger or hope, reaction or vision, competition for scarce resources or neighborly partnership for the common good?
Yes, it’s true, politicians and corporations will call the tune in years ahead. The future will largely be decided over our heads. History will roll over us, sweeping movements and sudden accidents tossing us where they will. There’s a lot more falling to be done in the next ten years, I’m afraid.
Remember 9/11’s New York firefighters? Their actions that terrible day say something vital to us now. When the towers were melting, the stairwells clogged with people rushing down, those guys were heading up. In the chaos they had made a clear choice.
On a day when so much fell down and shattered, they were (like Bruce Springsteen sings) rising.