by Jane Brundage
This morning, Friday, September 14, as I waited for the water to boil for my tea, the radio broadcasted an interview with one of the volunteers working at the World Trade Center, a dedicated young man named Hale. I was impressed by how articulate he was, considering the fact that he had just spent the last 20 hours cutting away at some of the huge metal pieces embedded throughout the enormous piles of wreckage that were once the Twin Towers. It's all right here, he said at one point, the best of humanity and the worst of humanity. I was struck by that phrase and started to think more about it as the day went on.
As each of us watches the TV footage of this tragedy, we, too, can witness the spectrum Hale speaks of: a numbing evidence of unthinkable violence and hatred being carefully mounted and combed by hundreds of courageous, selfless people, devotedly working the site, hoping to find even just one life in a tangled grave of so many; the undaunted spirit of New Yorkers, determined to set their city right, and to make it a stronger and better place than before; the ever curious devotion and kindness of strangers, who quietly leave safe, warm homes all over this country in order make a journey--a journey to bring one fraction of difference to an unfathomable tragedy.
Like any moment of reckoning, this time we live in holds for us a potential for great learning: we can look at the TV screen and see in some ways everything we need to know about what it is to be human: what it is to be afraid, what it is to touch courage you never knew you owned; what it is to be alone, what it is to see yourself in the face of another; what it is to be desperate, what it is to give all that you have to a cause that holds little promise; what it is to give your life over to your anger, what it is to risk the life you have in order to protect a person you do not even know; what it is to cry out in hatred and an insatiable need to destroy, what it is to reach out in compassion and an unwavering need to restore.
What this tells us is that at any given moment we each choose where we will fall along the spectrum, because this staggering range of humanity lives within each one of us. This spectrum of behavior that both frightens and endears, which we witness daily as we watch and live the aftermath of September 11, 2001 is not about us and them. It is only about us. There is not a clean cut between human beings that says this one is good and this one is bad, because we are all capable of both wounding and healing. We are all capable of selfishness and selflessness. We are all capable of extending our hand to another in order to either strike or to assist. None of us is a stranger to anger, despair, or misguidedness. And each one of us walks through life with an unflagging commitment to do what we think is right, no matter how potentially harmful or hateful that may be to others. Of humans it can often be said, we know not what we do.
But, we also know what we are called upon to do in the face of even the most hateful acts of another. None of us is a stranger to what we have been taught about forgiveness and compassion, though many times we choose to turn a deaf ear. We choose instead to strike out and meet anger with anger, hate with hate. It is a choice. It is an option certainly. But it is not the way.
I think we all get the drift by now that life is not easy. It is a challenge a moment sometimes. In such moments, whether we want to admit it or not, we often look to the grace of God to lift us out of the difficulty, to help us transcend the pain. But we don't find grace in doing the things that come naturally and easily: caring for a sick child, returning a favor to a helpful friend, giving what we already have a wealth of. We find grace in life from doing the things that are unspeakably hard, like forgiving the unforgiveable, or reaching out our hand to help an enemy, or giving freely and happily of what we can't afford to live without. It is actions which are grounded in nothing but blind but blind faith in something profound and powerful and good, which enable us to transcend our deepest miseries, our most gaping wounds, our insurmountable losses. It is not just one way of conducting our lives; it is the only way. It is not just one way of remedying what seems to have gone terribly wrong in the world today. It is the only way.
We stand at a crossroads, as individuals, as fellow countrymen, as citizens of the world. We all lost something on the morning of September 11, 2001: a life, a loved one, a friend, a colleague, a feeling of rightness and security, an ordinary day that began like any other, full of sunshine and promise, a beautiful and sturdy New York skyline, the right to feel joyful and carefree, and the sense that there is a limit to how wrong things can go, or how cruelly we can be treated by people who do not know us.
But oddly enough, we also gained. We gained a renewed appreciation for the preciousness of life, a striking awareness of the singular beauty each individual lends to our lives, a fresh understanding of the blessedness of normalcy. We gained gratitude for every life that wasn't lost--including our own--and witnessed a thousand miracles: people who missed their train, slept through their alarm, took a day off, stopped to talk to a friend, got laid off, trusted an instinct, or whatever else kept them from sitting down at their desk at a certain moment on a particularly ominous day. Walking, talking miracles of life. Thousands upon thousands of them.
We gained an opportunity to observe and extend and drink in a rich milk of human kindness, an amazing army of selfless thousands who ran without thought into buildings that swooned in the sky, terrible spectors of flame and smoke, who carried their disabled colleagues down seventy or more flights of stairs during the worst imaginable horror, and who still endure unbreathable air and dust, rain, cold, heat, and darkness, as well as utter,unknowable exhaustion at their own risk and peril to either save or honor the remains of people they have never even met.
The whole spectrum of humanity in one time and place, there for us to feast our eyes upon and ponder all of the complex emotions and experiences of what it is to be individual threads of people intertwined into the fabric of life on this planet. But for all we think we have lost, for all we cannot yet recognize that we have gained, we stand right now to lose so much more, depending on just how we choose to act next.
What do we do next? Take up our own knives, choose our own path of vengeance? Match burning buildings with more burning buildings? See the loss of life on our soil and raise it tenfold on the soil of our brothers? Because as citizens of this Earth, it is our brothers we are talking about retaliating against. It is our soil. Not a them, not a there, but an us, and a here. One of us, here and now.
To strike back is to demonstrate that we have already carelessly forgotten the lessons and wisdom that were won at such a high and terrible cost last Tuesday, that life--all life--is precious. That you cannot preserve life by destroying the life of another. That you cannot heal a wound with a fist raised in anger. That you cannot place a killing world into the hands of your children, and say: here, this is your home. That you cannot teach the world about liberty or what it has meant to lose it, if you are hopelessly at the mercy of your own insatiable anger and hatred.
The taking of another's life will not honor the life of a fallen loved one, because there is no honor in the taking of a life. There is no honor there, and there is certainly no grace. Without grace, there is no transcendence, no wisdom, and no true recognition of who we are. If we only know how to look in the eyes of our brother and see other there, then we will never be able to survive the events of Tuesday, September 11, 2001.
What if we were to take a moment and imagine ourselves walking up to one of those volunteers at the World Trade Center. Let's imagine ourselves tapping each one of them gently on their stooped shoulders and asking them: Do they think their lives are worth more than any of those missing for whom they rake so lovingly and relentlessly through the wreckage?
I think we all know what the answer to that question is.
It is time for us to choose peace and forgiveness. It is time for us to begin to shape a world grounded in respect and love and understanding. Let Tuesday's events be the turning point that will lead us there, so that a world of peace and goodwill towards men is no longer just a concept, or a line from a Christmas carol.
The saddest truth is that we as humans do not even know what a world like that would look like. We say, well, how would we do that? We are only familiar with attack and retaliation and rules of engagement. It is our first response, and it is the only response we have ever known. But it is not the only response, or, ultimately, the most prudent one for our future.
I do not know how we would go about effecting a peace. I only know we desperately need one. The tragic events of September 11 tell us that. I believe that if we place our energies behind this effort, the solutions will come to us. And peace will follow.
We need to speak and pray for peace. We need to hold it constantly in our hearts, for ourselves, for our home, for our children, and mostly for those who died in the terrible and tragic events of September 11, 2001, so that the lives they lost were not sacrificed in vain.
With love and peace to all,
Jane B. Brundage
Jane B. Brundage
Reprinted with permission