Photos by Leah Reddy/Trinity Wall Street
I’ll confess here (as I didn’t do in the public event that became this week’s show) that I’m already feeling overwhelmed by the 9/11 remembrance. Part of me hesitates to add to what will be a media deluge by Sunday. On the other hand, so much of that coverage is about reliving and revisiting; I’m longing to make some new kind of sense, to bring some new reflection to our common grappling.
We framed this public conversation at St. Paul’s Chapel on the edge of Ground Zero with a phrase I’ve used once or twice across the years: “remembering forward.” This is a play on my favorite line from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass: “It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards.”
And on Tuesday night, September 6th, remembering forward did take us to different places than I recall in my own September 11 deliberations up to now. We began by dwelling with the sense of vulnerability that was at the heart of that terrible day ten years ago — a catastrophic reminder of mortality and frailty even in our strongest fortresses. New Yorkers and Americans experienced a magnitude of “grief and dread” — Hendrik Hertzberg’s evocative words — that were disorientingly new.
I expected to be surprised, being in conversation with such an eclectic gathering of insightful thinkers — The New Yorker’s Hertzberg, writer and thinker Pankaj Mishra, and theologian Serene Jones — but I didn’t expect the word “hope” to resonate so loudly. It emerged as an intriguing, bittersweet theme.
For in pondering the strange and universal experience of vulnerability, we dwelt less on what was done to us and more about the work of living with the reality of that. We focused on the enduring, inward work of trauma that accompanied and followed that day ten years ago. As Serene Jones reminded us, when grief becomes mourning it encompasses a vision of wholeness.
On Tuesday night, we mourned not only for the tragedy but for the gift of those immediate post-9/11 days: the unprecedented solidarity that they called forth among strangers and fellow New Yorkers, between New York and the rest of America, between America and the rest of the world. And in this chapel, which is the symbol and practical heart of that ennobling moment of solidarity, we named questions, which themselves have power to create new realities in this coming decade. Did we really take in the extraordinary compassion the rest of the world extended to us in our moment of crisis? Is it too late to learn to extend that to each other and the world anew in more generous, more intentional ways?
My hope right now is rooted in a quiet, growing sense that, slowly, after many twists and turns, we might be settling into a more helpful realization of the limits of our understanding — and that this can open us to a new range of new possibilities and actions. We are more aware of our global interconnectedness this decade on. We are better equipped to understand that our dramatic moment of fear and grieving, of weakness in our strongest fortresses, is an experience many people across the world live with much of the time. We’ve realized that the Arab world we suddenly saw as full of enemies was also full of human beings who want the same dignity and democracy as us. The economic roller coaster of recent years has also reminded us of the perplexing reality that the only constant in life is change.
All these features of the decade since 9/11 have driven home its lesson of vulnerability. But they also drive home the lesson that there is both fear and solace to be drawn from the certainty that life and history will surprise us. Within that certainty, as Pankaj Mishra said so helpfully on Tuesday night, hope remains renewable. This was palpable at St. Paul’s Chapel that evening, making no sense at all and all the sense in the world.