In Two Years, What Have We Learned?

*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 ( “”: ). Read more of his arti­cles and books at “”: .]

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