Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Whose Sorrow Matters?

As the five year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on America came and went, I found myself doing a lot of reflecting. I look around me to see the ways in which our country has changed, and the ways in which it has not. More importantly I look inward to see the ways that I have changed, and the ways that I have not.

Like most people, I recall a sense of horror that washed over me that day when the second plane hit. When the FIRST plane went into that mighty sky scraper it seemed an inexplicable accident. HOW could someone be so dumb as to crash into a building? What went wrong? Was the pilot ill or impaired somehow? Sorrow and grief bubbled out of me for all the people killed. But at that point, there was no fear or dread. It was a terrible, awful thing that had happened. But bad things do happen. I could absorb it and move on.

Then the second plane hit. Then the growing sense of wrongness took shape. This was no tragic accident. This was deliberate. This was an attack.

As news came in of the Pentagon being hit as well the whole world tilted. My smug sense of safety about my land crumbled and fell just as surely as the twin towers coming down.

The days that followed were a surreal land of zombie anomie. Each of my three brothers were stranded someplace different, unable to get a return flight since all the airways had been grounded. My Boise, ID brother was in Phoenix. My Austin, TX brother was in Florida. My California brother was in Amsterdam. While each of them was physically safe, our whole family felt a sense of panic at the need to get them home.

Media saturated us with images of the catastrophe. We were glued to our televisions, transfixed, our minds gaping like goldfish out of the bowl. We were looking for a way to make sense of it all – but there was no making sense of madness.

Then, just a week after the disaster, my husband and I were on a plane bound for Fiji. The trip had been planned for nearly a year. We were on one of the first international flights allowed to take off again. Many people we knew thought we were nuts to get on a plane after what had just happened. But I was calm. I slept most of the way there.

We spent the next 10 days or so in the Yasawa islands, in a remote area with no television sets, no newspapers, no radio. After the previous night and day bombardment of how awful and dangerous the world was, I slipped into the sweet relief of quiet like diving into a cool pond to go skinny dipping on a summer day. I allowed the peace to wash over me and sink in deep.

One of the men from the village of Nacula heard there were Americans on the island. He came up to us and said: “We have been told there was a mighty explosion in your country. We have been told that many of your friends and neighbors have died. Our schoolchildren cry great tears for your loss. We grieve with you for this tragedy. Welcome to our little island. May you find peace here with us. We sorrow with you. Please let us know if there is anything we can do.”

I thanked the man for his kind words. I drew a picture in the sand showing a rough sketch of the United States. I showed him how the “mighty explosion” was on one side of the country and my home was clear on the other side, about as far away as one could get and still be in the same USA. I told him that yes, we were very deeply sad for what had happened, but explained that none of our own immediate family or friends had died in the blast.

That conversation has remained with me. Many, many times since then I have asked myself – whose sorrow and pain do I allow to pierce my heart and what suffering am I more callous to?

The wonderful people of Fiji did not personally know anyone in the United States. Most of the ones we met had never been off their own island. The disaster was many miles away among a people who gave little thought to their own lives or circumstances. Yet without question, those dear islanders CARED about what had happened and truly did grieve for our loss.

I think of all the times I’ve been flicking TV channels with a remote control and seen images of war, famine, earthquakes, tsunami or what have you that happens all over the world. When I see these events occurring far away, how much do I allow it to transform my heart and my spirit and how much do I emotionally shrug, saying “that’s really sad” and then move on to the next thing without so much as a blink? What determines which tragedies rock me to my core and which onese I define as merely a sad, unfortunate thing? Whose sorrow pierces me and whose does not?

Does it matter how many people die? Does it matter where they are dying? Does it matter how they are dying? What is my personal hierarchy for sorrow and grief?

If I remain fully present to every pain that happens, I run the risk of being emotionally obliterated. I cannot keep putting one foot in front of the other and get through the day if I am caught up and swept away by the full horror of every harmed soul. So I build walls around my heart. They are walls that allow me to be separate and intact in the face of deeply troubled times. However, I want them to be short walls that I can peek over. If I focus on the flies gathering on every bloated body or the babies that are being damaged and destroyed I will go mad. It makes sense to have limits to how much I concentrate on the pain of this world. But in the same breath, there is great cost to limiting my attention to suffering too much, danger in turning my heart away from others in order to preserve myself.

Last night I watched a program on TV about the people who were in the twin towers when they came down crashing into dust. The story that stayed in my mind was of the firemen whose lives were spared because they stopped to help a woman stranded in one of the stairways. All logic and reason declared that those firemen needed to haul ass and get out of that building if they wanted any hope of survival. But when they found this woman exhausted, unable to go down any more stairs on her own, they simply could not pass her by. So they took her with them, step by excruciating step, slowing their progress considerably. In the end, it was that very slowing down of their descent which saved all of their lives. Had they been closer to the ground when the building buckled, they would have become another pile of body parts to be tagged and identified.

I believe that I too will be best served if I am willing to stop my headlong hurry to get to my destinations in life – to be willing to notice those around me who are stuck and hurting. I need to slow down long enough to care about and assist those I can around me. I believe that is the way will all save each other.

Our world focuses so much on the rational, the practical, the efficient, the material.

I want to be more open to focusing on connection with my brothers and sisters, whether or not they look like me or speak my language or live in the country where I live.

In a couple months I will be heading off to Egypt. Many people have questioned that choice…worrying both about my being on an international flight and spending time in a Muslim country so close to where bombs are flying. Like my trip to Fiji five years ago, I feel calm. I am eager to go. I want to be open to all that I will learn, to every nuance of what I will experience.

But just as importantly – I want to be more fully present to the people HERE that I am exposed to day to day.

The tragedy of 9/11 was truly awful. But it would be even more awful if we did not learn from it. How we treat each other matters. If I can allow this event in history to serve as a catalyst for change in my own heart and behavior, then it will have a power quite different from the meaning I give it if I merely say “that’s so sad” and go on with my busy life. We never know how long we have on this earth. I want to make each day matter and let the people I love know it with no doubt.

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