Tuesday, September 12, 2006

On reclaiming a day in history

Okay, so I was debating with myself whether or not to post anything at all for September 11. I didn't want to post if I didn't really have anything to contribute, I didn't want to just vomit something inane about patriotism and remembering and hugging your loved ones, and I didn't want to do one of those "where were you" posts, because I recognize that where I was at the time is significant to no one but me.

I do remember how I felt, though. I remember watching TV coverage from the moment I got home, just glued to it, watching the same footage over and over again and not really expecting them to break in with anything new (anything accurate, anyway) but watching anyway. And I remember thinking how scared they must have been, the people in the planes recognizing the inevitability of what was about to happen, the people in the towers wondering if they would get out alive, the people in the upper floors realizing that they probably wouldn't. I remember people jumping, that last desperate and defiant act of choosing one's own fate from two equally horrific options, and wondering what they felt on the way down, whether they were, God forbid, scared to the last or whether they found some measure of peace in that final act. And I remember seeing the families around lower Manhattan with snapshots and flyers printed off the computer, hoping against hope that their loved one stopped for a paper on the way in to work and just hadn't gotten the chance to check in.

I also remember thinking that what was going on, what was happening to those people, was far above and outside of anything I'd ever experienced. I'd never known fear or despair or grief like those people were experiencing. And so I remember being angry when I opened the papers in days following and saw accounts of candlelight vigils with dewy-eyed freshman girls gazing moistly at the sky and saying, "I was in New York three years ago. I was right there. That could have been me. This happened to all of us," and I wanted to shout, "No, it didn't happen to all of us. It happened to people who are suffering more than you can possibly imagine, because it isn't all about you."

I don't know when or why it happened, but we've somehow, in this country, managed to exchange sympathy for a kind of stolen and false empathy. It's not enough to see others in pain and feel for them; we have to feel what they're feeling, have to be able to compete with them for sincerity and depth of emotion. When we see someone who's hurting, our immediate reaction is to use that as a sounding board for our own pain. These people who are going through so much, who at the moment are needing and deserving of our support more than anything else, become instead supports for us, the locomotive for our ever-lengthening Grief Train. It's emotional voyeurism, grief porn, and it's not fair.

Now, far be it from me to try to dictate who is and is not worthy of sympathy. Emotions are an intensely personal thing, and only the individual can really know, through honest examination, where their grief and fear really come from and what they need to do to work through it. For me, I knew then and know now that my feelings were rooted in the moment and would pass with time, and that the deep-seated pain and the protracted healing belonged to someone else. And many did recognize that, whatever they were feeling, healing would be found by looking outside themselves, in the weeks following, donating money and blood and sympathy to those deeply touched by the attacks.

As the initial blushes of intense feeling have faded, the attacks of September 11 and the events thereafter have been reduced to a catchphrase, a new shorthand, an avatar for the chaotic jumble of fear and grief and anger and loss and confusion and love and frustration that defined that moment in history. They're a number now, 9/11, a justification for political action, an accusation of weakness, a demand for accountability, a cry for praise, a call for revenge, a handy self-satisfied condemnation. Everything that was so intensely personal has been cooked down to an all-purpose salve for all political ills.

This morning, when the wives and husbands and parents and brothers and sisters and children of those lost were reading the names at 8:46 Eastern, I was glad. I was glad that the nearly 3,000 who died that day were remembered as individuals with names and faces and stories after so much time spent as one featureless universal justification. And I was glad that those reading the names were family members and loved ones. Because this day isn't about politicians, presidents and mayors and senators and governors shedding tears to show how much they care. It's about those families, those who have known true loss, whose lives have been changed more profoundly and indelibly than a code-yellow terror alert or a long security line at the airport.

It is also about us, though. It's about what we can do for each other, how we can work through our own feelings by helping others through theirs. And it's about how we can take back September 11, unpack it from the convenient carrying case of 9/11 and scrubbing off the layers of ulterior motive and false justification and anger and hatred that have accumulated over time. We have the chance and the authority to take it back and use it as a reason to show compassion, patience, love, and understanding, even when - especially when - the urge to give in to self-pity and self-centrism becomes overwhelming. September 11 was an attack on American soil, yes, but it was an attack on people, people who died and people who were left behind, people who need support and people who have support to offer. And that's what we really must take care to never forget.

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