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.
This is not exclusive to western religion, either. A central goal of Buddhism is mindfulness—becoming conscious of what you’re doing. We are supposed to be “mindful” as we peel an onion, not so we’ll make a better stew but so we’ll make a better person. Learning to be mindful is as difficult, and necessary, as exercising a muscle. If we don’t use it, it will atrophy.
We have all said our prayers of thanks to firefighters and policemen and those people on Flight 93 who saved other lives by sacrificing their own. And we have all acknowledged that even those who were simply obliterated by the attacks were soldiers of sorts—the first casualties in a war for freedom.
But I want to thank them in a different way, to attribute meaning to their sacrifice after the fact. Perhaps husbands lost wives on 9/11 so that other husbands might appreciate theirs; mothers lost children so that others might remember to forgive; wives lost husbands so that other wives might choose their words carefully as they said goodbye in the morning.
Even the smells of the city provide a regular reminder. To those of us who lived in this area, the smell of burning buildings—and yes, one could not help but imagine, the smell of burning flesh—was everywhere. I cannot go past a construction site or near a fire without being reminded of the original smell. That odor became sacred.
I feel like I now understand how Catholics can really feel that the eucharist is the body of Christ and that they are ingesting and becoming one with it.
To a degree few of us want to acknowledge, those of us who smelled that smoke drifting from Wall Street can never smell anything burnt the same way. And I couldn’t be more grateful.
When I talk to friends outside of New York, I sense that 9/11 has become something different. It has become the beginning of a war, the beginning of a very important struggle, but not, fundamentally, a spiritual experience. In that sense, those of us in New York were the most blessed ones in America.