*By Johann Christoph Arnold*
bq. “I often wonder how many more tragedies it will take before we learn to truly love each other, and before we grasp how happy we could be if we cared for those around us as well as we care for ourselves.”
“Hope begins in the dark, with the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work; you don’t give up.” — Anne Lamott
It was a late afternoon in mid-August, and I was gathering my thoughts for this piece, when the blackout hit. As news reporters (at least those who could still broadcast) described the chaos in Manhattan and other cities throughout the Northeast and Midwest, our nation’s worst fear – a new terror attack – was reawakened. By the end of the day, the sense of vulnerability that so terrified us two years ago had spilled into every street. As eyes met, uncertainty flickered across every face.
Few people I know have recovered from the shock of the event. They may no longer be talking about it, but privately they’ll admit to a sense of lingering dread. Similarly, in europe and elsewhere, unprecedented killer heat waves and wildfires have left people on edge and wondering at how quickly we are making our planet unlivable.
President Bush was right: the blackout was unmistakably a wake-up call. To me, it is yet another example of the way God is still trying to pry open our hearts and speak into our souls through the tragedy of 9/11. Once again, we are being forcefully reminded that our faith in technology – in ourselves – is badly misplaced. It is clear that the questions we began asking two years ago have not yet been answered.
With this anniversary my thoughts are not so much with those who were snatched from us. They are in a place where we all long to be. My thoughts are with the living – those of us left behind. I think of those hit by the harsh reality that their loved ones are among the victims whose remains will never be identified. I feel their pain as they struggle against the temptation of anger – anger that those they were closest to never received a proper farewell.
ever since 9/11, people have said that things cannot go on as usual; that life will “never be the same again.” For those who lost loved ones, that has been proved to be an inescapable fact. For the rest of us, it ought to be true, too. But has it been, or has it become a cliché? If we truly honored the dead and their families, wouldn’t our words be accompanied by actions? Wouldn’t our attitudes, choices, and priorities show the change?
It’s been said by many others, but it must be said again: we Americans still have it too good. Not even 9/11 could shake the faith we have in ourselves. We believe we are invincible, that the good times are here to stay – no, that the good times will get even better. We have become hardened and indifferent to the needs of the rest of the world. Our success – and our greed for greater success – has solidified into a frightening arrogance. We have become deaf and blind to a growing worldwide resentment against us.
But it is not too late to reverse all this. It is not too late to open our eyes and look squarely at the rest of the world’s misery. It is not too late to dismantle our arrogance and allow ourselves to be taught by the weak, the suffering, and the poor. Perhaps they can teach us what we have avoided learning for so long: that our time on earth is short. Through them we can learn, as Simone Weil once recognized, that “if we accept death completely, we can ask God to make us live again, purified from the evil in us.”
As I recently reflected on the lessons of the last two years, I came across a meditation by Alfred Delp, a priest hanged by the Nazis in 1945. In it he ponders why God keeps us “in this chaos, where all appears endlessly hopeless and dark.” Delp surmises that maybe it is because, again and again, we seek comfort in false security, and in the “false pathos” that makes us think we can “avert any danger.”
We think we can “banish night, halt the internal quaking of the universe, harness everything and fit it into an order that will stand.” If we really wanted to prevent catastrophe, we would wake up and shake off this fog. And yet we slumber on, unshakable and obstinate and superficial. And again and again, God himself must intervene…
To Delp, waking up means realizing how helpless and wretched we are. But it also means something positive: it means becoming aware of “the golden threads that pass between heaven and earth.”
For me, these golden threads are the truly good things of life – the friends and family members we have; the relationships we share with them; the thoughts, words, and deeds of love that make life worth living. And as the second anniversary of 9/11 passes, perhaps we ought to spend more time considering such things, rather than dwelling on collapsing towers and falling planes.
How quickly we forget the treasure we found in each other in those moments of terror! every day offers us countless opportunities to find it again; every day we pass them by. If we took up even one – if we were able to relieve the fear or despair of even one person, we would find such happiness that we would not want anything else from life.
I often wonder how many more tragedies it will take before we learn to truly love each other, and before we grasp how happy we could be if we cared for those around us as well as we care for ourselves.
But I believe that we are slowly learning. There is hope. I saw it the first night of the recent blackout, when the spirit of compassion that transformed Manhattan on 9/11 was reawakened. Strangers asked strangers for help. Businessmen helped old people across the street. Twenty-somethings helped children find shade. People shared water, and taxis, and private cars. Just like two years ago, we found out how much we needed each other. Yes, there were those who took advantage of the situation. There was greed, and desperation. Here and there, price gougers tried to make a fast buck. But they were in the minority, and I am sure that this is a result of 9/11. Before that day, there would have been many more. But now we know better. We have learned something after all, and we are changing.
[Johann Christoph Arnold is an author and minister with the Bruderhof Communities ( “http://www.bruderhof.com”:http://www.bruderhof.com ). Read more of his articles and books at “http://www.ChristophArnold.com”:http://www.ChristophArnold.com .]