What I’ve Learned
Long after the attacks on America, why we’re still discovering who we are and who we want to be.
Town & Country: September 1, 2002
“The impulse of tragedy is on to life and more life,” said Eugene O’Neill, who pondered the power of sadness to shape a life and to edify. I used to think of the quote sometimes when I attended a funeral: this sad thing we’re doing makes me feel more tender toward the sidewalk I will soon walk home on, and toward the home itself.
September 11 didn’t change me—it reinforced me, or rather, reinforced the me I’d been becoming.
It made me hungrier for life and more grateful for it. I feel more actively grateful. My gratitude is more present as I walk down the street and see small things—how an infant who doesn’t know how to kiss yet, kisses her mother by putting her whole face up against her mother’s; the skinny, tender arms of eight-year-old boys; the light on Montague Street in Brooklyn in the summer when the sun starts to go down and hits the great skyscrapers across the river and fills Brooklyn Heights with a gold-dust glow.
I’ll never forget any of it. None of us will. One columnist speculated that twenty million people saw it from nearby with their own eyes, saw the attack or the fire or the fall or the wounding gorgeousness of the cloud, which lingered for days afterward. I live here and I was one of them. For months after September 11, I would think of the clusters of Vietnamese women who suddenly, after the Vietnam War, began to go blind. Doctors said it was hysterical blindness, visual overload: the trauma they’d seen had left them unable to see, at least for a time. I keep wondering: will some of the millions develop a case of hysterical blindness? And what is it we will not be able to see?
Meanwhile, I feel I have more clarity. I see better. I am more grateful to be alive. I take greater joy in smaller things, but here is the big thing: I feel more certain than ever that there is a God, that he is good, that there is purpose and meaning in the world, in my life, in yours. I thought tragedy was supposed to shake your faith. Mine has only deepened, and this is true of almost everyone I know. On the nine-month anniversary of the attacks, a friend sent me a note that said what I had been driving at in my work and my thoughts, but not quite saying, or reaching. She was recalling a quote from C. S. Lewis. She couldn’t remember the words, but the meaning was this: Institutions come and go, but the waiter who poured your coffee this morning is eternal.
Meaning, the things of the world, the things we create, do not last forever, but a soul does. A human soul lives forever in eternity. Great buildings rise and fall, but souls continue onward, and you affect a soul for well or ill every time you interact with a human being.
This is a big thought, and a reordering one. It reminds us of our profound and enormous power every day as we talk to, love, shame or ignore each other.That’s the big drama—the human person.
I feel more certain than ever that, for whatever reason or reasons, we, those of us who live now in America in 2002, have been put here to get our country through the big terrible thing and the things that will follow. That is our job. I have a purpose and you do. It is: Get through, hold fast, move forward, hold together, make the future. And do it with brio, with heart.
I think we all somehow know this without any of us saying it. Which is why since September 11 so many of us are more generous with those we know and don’t know, more delicate, more patient, more polite. We are better to each other on the subway, smile more, connect more on the street. We’re more welcoming to strangers. Because we’re all in it together, and we know it. And we’ve been reminded that life is precious, and full of beauty. We are more hungry for it than ever, and so hurtle toward it and through it with more courage, and love.
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