Among the dates I keep track of is January 11th. It’s the day my son was born and I first became a father. It’s the day he died and my wife and I entered the world of parenting through grieving. But we had been primed for this bittersweet turn of events. After all, my wife’s family had survived the Holocaust, my own family had survived Japanese occupation. And, like so many of our generation, we were New Yorkers transplanted to the Capitol Area, who experienced and survived that fateful day in September…also on the 11th.
One of my friends from just across the river in New Jersey posted a link to an article which aired on a show called The Take Away on this past 14th Anniversary of September 11th. It was called “Why I’m done with the 9/11 ritual.” And while you can guess that the provocative title garnered its share of fever pitched negative reaction, John Hockenberry’s main points in the article were something that resonated with me as well.
I had just started theology school in Washington DC on that day. I rode the Metro passed the Pentagon probably within about 20 minutes of that fateful crash. My take away was very similar to Hockenberry’s observation that the world was with us Post-9/11 and we squandered the moment (given the caveat that the grief and loss was real). Neither the article nor my comments here are meant to disparage, invalidate, or minimize the immense loss of life on that day. But I also think that because of our robust American machismo we improperly handled or completely dismissed the proper way to publicly grieve. And so mixed in with our genuine memorializing of the events, its victims, and our own national psyche is this “delicate wound” begging to be undone.
In my Facebook comment to my friend, I noted that the topic of September 11th in the world of social media can be a hot-button issue, so I prefer to err on the side of being deferential. This is partly because so many friends and colleagues have real skin in the game and scars. (I only have to take the day or two after each 9/11 anniversary to read through the postings to see that). But I also know that most of my Facebook kinfolk and people in real-time, who shared the events on the ground in NYC and DC (and more distantly in PA) that day, also lament what we “had done or failed to do.” Most are not easily turned to a simple exercise of flag waving, but a deeper look at man’s inhumanity to man, and the positive examples of collective human achievement done in the face of that.
Like the author, I too over the years have turned more toward what all this should mean or what this might explain about the world to my daughter, not yet born at the time, but living in a Post 9/11 world now. I grew up in the shadow of Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, and the Korean and Vietnam wars. Those had very real effects on why the American world treated me the way it did, on one hand, and why my grandparents and many of my Filipino relatives had their own blank stare and far away look as they contemplated how that side of the world was connected to this one. How they got from back then and there to here and now. How, for example, could we cheer the same sports teams at a backyard Super Bowl party with our neighbors and have to wash the word CHINK off our driveway every mischief night.
The idea that collective playground or neighborhood disagreements can blow up on the world stage to groups of people devoting themselves to military armament in order to deliberately inflict harm and spew death upon “the enemy” is completely foreign to her. That people would turn a plane into a weapon (or a pressure cooker into a bomb) is not on her radar. Neither is it for her age group or possibly her generation. Maybe that’s a good thing? Or maybe it’s just that “innocence” not yet lost.
But since I was born here, there is another side to post-WW II, post-Cold War (and perhaps Post-9/11). It isn’t that America is always in the end the hero of its own saga. There’s Memory of War and the toll it takes, not just (to use Kurt Vonnegut’s sarcasm) on “veterans of future wars” but how the toil, blood, and treasure is built into American History itself. Lately, some of it has bruised up against our hurtful racist past and treatment of “Black America.”
But one need only dust off our high school history books or Google the data to be reminded of the death toll from the U.S. Civil War. We are a people that did that to ourselves. The rifts and failures to grieve collectively for that wound still play out in the fissures of our social and national existence. It is indeed our fatal flaw. We’re always dying and remembering. And all we (as Americans) have is the hope that we are heroes enough for the next generation to “do it better.”
That’s why Stephen Colbert’s interview with Vice-President Joe Biden on The Late Show on September 10th was such a remarkable TV event. If it had taken place on The Colbert Report, the jokes and ribbing about whether Mr. Biden was considering a Presidential run would have been enough of a punchline. Instead, Mr. Colbert and Mr. Biden (both Catholics) had a down-to-earth conversation about “faith.” More specifically, Mr. Biden talked not about religious moralism that leads to the self-righteous world of who is right and wrong. Instead, he talked about someone who has suffered and grieved. In so doing, he became more empathetic with the suffering of others. This is exactly what you do not say as a career politician in a Post-9/11 world.
But speaking as a Catholic who has suffered and shared in others’ grief, I live between September 11 and January 11. I believe in a God who is both with us and with those no longer with us. While it is a mystery to me how God holds that together, I know that God’s mercy is a reflection of the measure by which we should try to do the same.
Looking at the suffering in your own life, how has that humbled you and enabled you to be more empathetic to the others suffering in the world?
What is your great take-away in the Post-9/11 world that you would want children to grow up embracing?
© Copyright 2015 Jay Cuasay
Photography, Remember (3-photo collage), Jay Cuasay, May 2015. All Rights Reserved.