Looking Back at the Anniversary

No matter how many times I have done it, it always feels strange to be flying on September 11th, and this year—with the tenth anniversary and all of the accompanying attention to it—it felt particularly odd. It must be akin to the peculiar feeling that people in New York experience whenever, in the days leading up to the 11th, the weather is as crystal-clear and bright as it was on the day ten years ago when the planes crashed into the World Trade Center Towers.

As I sat in the terminal at LaGuardia Airport, and found myself surprised by the number of people that were traveling this morning, there was a quiet but hardly somber tone. I glanced at the Sunday edition of the New York Times and was struck by the number of advertisements from expensive jewelers and specialty stores that normally border the news stories on the first few pages of the front section of the paper. Those advertisements were unusually simple, direct and somber this day, calling us not to purchase their items but to remember those who were lost in the tragedy a decade ago. It reminded me of the days following September 11th when it felt risky even to be lighthearted in the media.

Then I read an article in the Wall Street Journal that focused on Mayor Bloomberg’s controversial decision not to include religious figures in the commemorative services that day at Ground Zero. He mentioned that a good many non-religious people would be in attendance and that he was reticent to force religion down the throats of those who were not believers—as if the role of religious people was to make others unlike them feel uncomfortable! Then came a strange announcement on the airport PA system: “We ask you to pause in a moment of silence in honor of those who lost their lives on September 11, 2001.” I looked around the terminal: many people were oblivious to the request, heading to their gate or to baggage claim; some took it seriously and clearly paused from what they were doing; a great many like myself looked around and no doubt wondered, “What in the world am I supposed to do now?” How can I be observant in a place such as this, particularly when the gate agent is boarding my flight?

To be sure, we are a culture that is not necessarily comfortable with solemn observances. We speak of remembering and taking time to reflect, but we move on quickly from that. We are much better, much more experienced in playing the roles of sports fans and rock concert-goers, and we find ourselves prone to carrying over that type of behavior into occasions such as weddings, lectures, and public meetings. We are at home more with the characteristic, “Woo-ooo,” than pausing, let alone not saying anything. No day forces that cultural discomfort upon us more than the anniversary of September 11th.

Speaking with a number of people in schools, both Episcopal and non-Episcopal, secular and sectarian, this past week, I was aware of the challenge that many of them faced in putting together a fitting observance of the anniversary of this tragic event. Some felt that it was important to give attention to the anniversary, but were uncertain about the right way to frame it. Should it be traditional or contemporary? Should it be a context that focused on individual feelings and remembrance, or something that took people beyond the memories, toward transcendent hope and mercy? Others worried about how to share the sense of loss—not to mention the experience of how life changed that day—with those who might not understand it (because of age) or, perhaps because of their own religious beliefs, may feel some of the vulnerability that groups such as Muslims felt in the weeks and months that followed the event.

While observing September 11th poses some unique and unparalleled challenges, it also points out and casts into bold relief some of the challenges we always face with observing solemn occasions. Particularly, I think of three.

First, how do we set a solemn tone to an observance without making it feel unduly grave, somber or depressing?
In a culture that eschews solemnity, particularly in public or community gatherings, this worry can be great. Moreover, with younger children in attendance there is also the concern that anything that focuses on loss or death will cause unnecessary trauma.

Perhaps a better word to use, in seeking to describe the tone that such occasions might seek to instill, might be reverence. In seeking to be reverent, we are respectful, mindful of something much larger than ourselves, embodying a mood where we listen in order to understand, even in the midst of times that often cannot be understood (If this concept is one you might like to learn more about, I recommend Paul Woodruff’s book, Reverence, as a good introduction). Reverence captures the sense that we all have something to learn from an event that is both unexpected and unwelcome, that we have listening to do, whether it is to others or to ourselves. We have much to learn from those who suffered, those who have survived, and those who have experience putting words or music to situations that defy rational explanation.

Secondly, how do we provide something meaningful to a group of people who will experience the event in vastly different ways? At times when we gather to mourn the loss of someone in our community, or observe the anniversary of a loss felt by a wide variety of people, there is always a group that will feel the event more acutely than others. Many have been the times, following a service for someone who has died, when I have heard some students in attendance speak of how awkward they felt—indeed how guilty they felt—that they did not experience the same sense of loss, grief or seriousness that others felt in that gathering. We can never assume that when a community gathers in the midst of something serious that all will be able to embrace that tone at the same level. Increasingly, our observances of September 11th in the future will prompt this question, as a date that is of great meaning to many teachers is counterbalanced by a growing number of students who will not be of the age to have remembered the tragedy of this day.

We can, of course, ready them to have a sense of how to respond, what resources to draw upon, when a life-shaping loss or tumultuous event alters their own lives. And, I believe, we can rely on stories, be they our own stories of where we were and how we reacted to the news of the plane crashes or the stories of those who did heroic things or gave their lives for the sake of others. Story is one of the principal means by which we connect a large group of people—let alone a large age span—who experience an observance in vastly different ways. It induces empathy and binds together a wide variety of people.

Finally, observances such as these always have a crucial question lurking somewhere beneath the surface: why did this have to happen?
Observances of loss, grief, and commemorations tragic events always prompt a return of what Muriel Spark referred to as, “The only problem,” the question of theodicy, the deeply penetrating and immensely difficult question, “Why would God—indeed a loving God—permit such events to occur?” It is always important to be keeping mind, as we go about putting together such services and commemorations, that this question is never far from the lips and hearts of those in attendance, particularly young people. We may not be able to answer the question with any degree of depth or succinctness, but we need to remember that it is always being asked, that it will always be there.

Fortunately, at Episcopal schools we have the luxury of contexts (chapel, classroom discussions, and conversations in the chaplain’s office) where such questions can be asked without fear or embarrassment, as a natural outgrowth of our willingness to raise the “God issue” in the first place, and we have the luxury of contexts where we can at least attempt to grapple with the meaning and substance of this, the biggest of all questions. As I heard some individuals in non-sectarian schools struggle with their handling of how to approach such a solemn, reverent occasion, I felt blessed to be a part of a group of schools that—while we struggle just as much as anyone in considering what is the right tone and format—we have the contexts that prepare us for such events, as well as contexts that help carry us beyond the events, to the important days of regrouping and finding strength to carry on that follow upon them.