The Gift of 9/11
The incongruous blessings of a horrible event.
This article originally appeared on Beliefnet in September, 2002. Steve Waldman added the following in 2003: "I wrote the piece below a year ago and expected that, by now, the effects that 9/11 had on me would have worn off or abated. They haven't. And I'm not alone. Surprisingly, a recent ABCNews poll found that nationally one of three people say they think about 9/11 every day. The spiritual impact persists."
9/11 has had a glorious effect on me. It has made me think about dying every day, often in gruesome ways. It has made me think about my children being annihilated in a nuclear explosion or kidnapped—every day. It has made me think my wife is about to be murdered—every day.
9/11 has been a potent blessing because it has given me, at least for now, what so many religions try to give: awareness.
I do not go to synagogue any more than I did before 9/11; my wife, who is Christian, does not go to church any more than she did. And in this way, we are like most Americans.
But to conclude therefore that 9/11 has had no spiritual impact may miss the point. 9/11 made us all feel more vulnerable, and that was an extraordinary gift.
A few months after the attack, I was leaving home to go work. Amy and I had just had a minor fight about something, and I stalked off in a huff of righteous indignation. It wasn’t a huge fight or a huge huff, but it gnawed at me as I walked up the block. And by the time I neared the stoplight, that same thought had intruded: what if that was our final goodbye? So I walked back and told her I loved her. That wouldn’t have happened before 9/11. Thank you, Osama Bin Laden.
So much of religious ritual is simply an elaborate attempt to get us to remember. It is wrapped in music, spiced with incense, ingested as a wafer—but it is all about reminding us of the big picture, lest we lose ourselves in the minutiae. The Sabbath is about remembering the sacred; the bedtime prayer is about remembering to be grateful; grace is about treasuring that which we might take for granted; candle-lighting is about honoring the soul.