Like everyone I was a bit solemn on Friday, September 11. I will never forget that horrific day of fourteen years ago when it seemed as though we were in the midst of a nightmare that not even Stephen King might have imagined. I remember wondering if the world that I had always known would ever be the same. In some ways I have to admit that it is not exactly as it had been before. The trouble with terror is that it does strange things to the mind. Even though we have essentially gone about our routines for the last fourteen years deep inside our psyches is a kind of fear that did not exist prior to the terrible event that we all witnessed. We want to be our old optimistic selves but that day has taught us to beware.
For a time there seemed to be a great deal of good that followed the attack on the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. We really did appear to come together as a nation. I vividly recall receiving phone calls from family members and friends who just wanted to say that they loved me. My neighbors came out from their homes that evening and we talked in our yards and thanked God that all of us were safe. We expressed our feelings for each other lest we not have the opportunity to do so in a future that seemed so uncertain. We spoke of our country in the most patriotic ways. We related the things that were really important like family and freedom and love. Out of the evil of that day we seemed to be awakened from a state of complacency and taking our lives for granted.
Unfortunately in the fourteen years that have passed we have become such a divided and angry nation. I have long reflected and tried to make sense of some of the ugliness that I see and hear. In a sense it reminds me of some of the wounded children that I have taught. While they often seemed to be hateful trouble makers, I generally found that if I delved a bit more deeply into their histories I almost always learned of horrible things that had happened to them. They had been damaged so badly that they were always fearful and alert lest someone harm them again. The tough guy exteriors hid the scars and the worries that they continually harbored.
I suspect that whether consciously or unconsciously a great number of citizens of the United States are quite worried about this country and what impact its problems will have on them. That is the nature of terror. It kills trust. It alerts the survival instincts. It silently builds an “every man for himself” wall around the core of so many souls.
I’m not saying that everyone has been affected in this way but I do believe that large numbers have. When I hear people ranting I try to put myself in their shoes and to understand what may really be bothering them. I’d rather listen to them than attempt to change their minds. It helps if I know what has lead them to a state of anxiety that is so real that it can’t just be ignored. These people are looking for someone to hear their voices. They need to know that we care that they exist. They are crying out because they are afraid. They tear up cities in riots because they are afraid. They rant that they want to send eleven million people back to Mexico because they are afraid. They want to be heard, not just by those who think like they do but also by those who oppose them. They do not want to be judged.
It pains me when I see so many rants on social networks. They come from the left, the right, and sometimes even the middle. People tell me that they have stopped paying attention to such things. They believe that if they just ignore uncomfortable commentaries that they will eventually go away. I believe that they are wrong. In fact I suspect that the problems will only get worse if we attempt to silence the thoughts of those that bother us. History has shown us again and again that we really do have to be willing to consider multiple points of view. Desperation leads to some crazy actions.
We have bullies in our midst for sure. Harry Reid is as belligerent as an old time mobster. Donald Trump is so rude and crude that he embarrasses most of us. Somehow though both men keep getting things done and they voice painful and unpleasant ideas that really are out there and that must be confronted. Those who feel that they live on the outer edges of society are attracted to anyone who seems to offer a voice. Perhaps if we were to allow those with points of view that differ from ours to speak their minds without immediately thinking of how we are going to refute them we may learn why they seem to be so negative. We don’t need debates, we need conversations. If we purposely avoid uncomfortable dialogues the great divide will only grow.
I am a peacemaker at heart but I have learned that sometimes I have to also fight for what is right. In fact, I have more than once been accused of being a trouble maker and an agitator. When I see wrongs I have a strong compulsion to make them right, especially when someone who is powerless is being unjustly hurt. I’ve fought for my mother. I’ve spoken for my fellow teachers. I’ve set things right for students. Mostly I have listened so that I may hear what is really happening in an individual’s heart. Often the person who gives the impression of being a bully is actually only a battered soul.
My mother was a fighter. She had been ridiculed and insulted as a child just for being poor and the daughter of immigrants. Sometimes she sounded a bit combative in certain situations but I understood that she was simply claiming what she viewed as her God given rights. She was determined that nobody was ever going to hurt her or her family again.
None of us who are old enough to remember September 11, 2001, will ever forget where we were, what we were doing, and how we felt. For a time we were all in this crazy world together. We joined hands and moved forward without considering politics or race or religion. We were Americans and we were family. I keep hoping that our spirit of unity will return once again. I’m not certain what we will need to do to resurrect all that is best about us. I know that we are all weary of fighting among ourselves.
Perhaps we might start a revolution. The next time that someone begins to rant in a way that is disturbing, instead of shutting them down or attempting to argue with them we might want to simply say, “Tell me more. I am interested in hearing your point of view. I want to know why you have come to these conclusions. I will really listen to you.” Then if you pay careful attention and attempt to refrain from categorizing ideas and people as good or bad, you just may find that the two of you ultimately want many of the same things but just disagree on how to achieve the goals.
Many people have been greatly moved by the words and guidance of Pope Francis. I think that if we consider what he is saying we will understand that he is preaching a change in the way that we relate to one another. He wants us to appreciate the importance of mercy and understanding. It’s something to think about the next time we encounter those with whom we do not agree. What better way is there to honor those who lost their lives on 9/11/01 than to be instruments of unity.