What We Have Learned

“We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing,” the old hymn says and children still sing. This Thanksgiving some of us have felt a greater than usual desire to gather, and ask. Our first big national coming together since the attacks on America has taken on a heightened feel. There’s a lot of tenderness out there, and a lot of gratitude, too. One way or another we’ll all probably be talking about the things we’ve learned about ourselves, and our country, since that extraordinary day, September 11.

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Trauma educates. We’ve been reminded that life is short, and probably more beautiful for the brevity: Maybe we wouldn’t appreciate flowers so much if we thought that they, and we, would last forever. To know it’s temporary is to want to see life more sharply, to breathe it in. Tragedy can leave you hungry for life.

We have learned that Americans are nimble: We crossed the divide between the old world and the new in about 48 hours. In the much-used phrase we wrapped our brains around it, and quickly. We reordered our minds, and stepped into the new reality.

We are newly aware that as a nation we are both fragile and strong. Because we are technologically highly evolved we are dependent on the maintenance of a certain infrastructure. It took only 19 men only two hours to down the power lines, cause chaos, crash markets, strike fear. We were vulnerable.

We also learned we are stronger than we knew. A nation that had spent the past few decades trying to decide what kind of cashmere slippers to buy found out it was, still, tough as old boots.

We found some things that had been lost. Our love of country, for instance. Not everyone found it because not everyone had lost it but some had. They hadn’t thought in a long time about why America is worthy of their love and protectiveness. But it’s been on their mind since 9/11. They are like the character Tom at the end of Tennessee Williams’s “The Glass Menagerie,” who said of the family he could not forget, “I was more loyal than I meant to be.” Maybe a lot of people have found they were more loyal to America than they knew.

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We have learned that the baby boom generation was up to the crisis history finally handed it. From the White House to the media to the Pentagon to Ground Zero the salt-and-peppered ones met the challenge. We may have to stop calling them babies now.

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We have learned, as a minister put it, that the age of the genius is over and the age of the hero begun. The observation is that of Father George Rutler, a Roman Catholic priest who ran to the Trade Center when the towers were hit. As New York’s firemen, the first and still greatest warriors of World War IV, passed the priest on the way to the buildings they’d pause for a moment and ask for prayers, for a blessing, for the sacrament of confession. Soon they were lined up to talk to him in rows, “like troops before battle,” he told me. He took quick confessions, and finally gave general absolution “the way you do in a war, for this was a war.”

When I heard this story it stopped me dead in my tracks because it told me what I’d wondered. They knew. The firemen knew exactly what they were running into, knew the odds, and yet they stood in line, received the sacrament, hoisted the hoses on their backs and charged.

When Father Rutler hears sirens now his eyes fill with tears. There was so much goodness in that terrible place! And he saw it, saw the huge towers burning, melting, saw a thousand Americans hit the scene and lead what is now known, in New York, as the greatest and most successful rescue effort on American soil in all of American history.

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We have learned, perhaps in a new way, that we are one people. In the past 50 years we have seen our country inch closer each day to greater affection, regard and understanding among our many races. For half a century we’ve seen Americans of all colors in the office, at Bible study, on the playground, in school negotiating the new respect in a million private transactions every day.

But something in the events of 9/11, something in the fact that all the different colors and faiths and races were helping each other, were in it together, were mutually dependent and mutually supportive, made you realize: We sealed it that day. We sealed the pact, sealed the promise we made long ago. We went from respecting our differences to having, essentially, no differences. We are Americans. That’s a lot to have in common.

If you need one stray bit of proof: Helping to run the war, negotiate the diplomatic aspects, standing and speaking for the administration, said to be the most trusted longtime counselor of the president of the United States is a 46-year-old black woman who was born when black girls had to be escorted to public schools by federal marshals.

Nobody really mentions this about Condi Rice because it’s not big news. And it’s not big news because it’s what we do now.

What kind of country does this? A great country. That’s a good thing to learn, or relearn, too.

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We learned or were reminded that in America the toughest moments become, within weeks, tough jokes about the fix we’re in. And we still know better than almost anyone how to laugh at ourselves. A small for instance: It was said by a late night comedian that since Americans can’t keep all the “istans” straight—Uzbekistan, Tajikstan, Afghanistan—the best plan was to invade them all, turn them into one country and call it JenniferAnistan, as that way we’d both remember it and like it.

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We have learned that in the life of this nation faith trumps everything. Faith trumps culture, faith trumps politics, faith in God is simply at the heart of the American experience and has been from the very beginning, from the first Thanksgiving, which was a giving thanks to God.

The men and women in their 20s and 30s who are on the ships, in the jets, in the troops on the ground: They wear crosses and Miraculous Medals and Stars of David. America taught them to be ambitious, but life taught them to be religious, because it teaches that rising is not enough. They are like the firemen: They believe. And their belief may lead them to heroism, and their heroism may win the day.

Individually many of us have learned what was said the other night at a dinner for the widows and children of New York’s firemen and police. That when you’re with the grieving you don’t have to say the right thing because there is no right thing. You just have to be there. Just be “there,” not distracted and daydreaming but loyally there and consciously there.

And we have learned that people experience things in different ways, draw different conclusions. The priest, Father Rutler, who was at Ground Zero was, a few days later, on a train on the East Coast. He fell into conversation with a young man on his way back to college. He told the young man what he’d seen, what the firemen had done, how none of them turned back or turned away. And the boy listened and said, “They must have been sick.” The priest was startled; he thought to himself that the boy was a victim of modern philosophy, of the deconstructionist spirit, of modernity.

“They were heroes.” “They were sick.” That’s a division, but it’s not a question, because most of us know what they were. It’s something else we’ve learned since 9/11. And I don’t think we’ll be forgetting it any time soon.