Twenty years ago, I stood in my kitchen in Baltimore and watched in disbelief as two planes hit the Twin Towers. Days later, I was compelled to go to Ground Zero myself to bear witness to the crime. I won’t ever forget the eerily silent procession of stunned residents walking slowly through the white ash of pulverized cement, steel, drywall, window glass that covered everything.
We breathed in dust containing the remains of the people killed in the attack, along with the hair and skin cells of those who had worked in the World Trade Center decades before. The mood felt sacred, and we were congregants receiving communion together.
Afterward, I wondered whether my sudden compulsion to visit Ground Zero was simply morbid fascination. Something akin to the gawkers who slow down on highways after a bad accident to get a look.
I don’t think so. At the time it felt more like a pilgrimage. I wanted to process what had just occurred, and for that I needed to be up close and emotionally open to one of the most enduring and traumatic events of my generation.
This week thousands will listen to the tolling of the bells as the names of those lost on 9/11 are read aloud on the 20th anniversary of the attacks. The sorrow of this year’s observances is deepened by the recent images of 13 fallen soldiers returning home from Afghanistan encased in flag-draped transfer cases. The anguish of families and loved ones was off camera and inaudible to the public.
In epilogue, we witnessed last week the unfulfilled promises of a failed foreign policy and the final exit of American troops from Afghanistan. In the background, we could glimpse the silhouette of a prowling beast readying itself to feast on hard-won freedoms and to commit torture and other atrocities against women, children, and civilians as a reinvigorated Taliban regime reestablishes its footing in the region.
The list of such unspeakable human suffering throughout history is a kaleidoscope of horrific images — from the triangulated Atlantic slave trade to the death camps during the Holocaust. We are living in uncertain and ambiguous times, but hardly unique. To be human is to be awash in suffering. To be assaulted by a steady pelt of disaster, disease, and death raining down daily on our heads, reminding us that tragedy is arbitrary and capricious. That tragedy makes landfall anytime and anywhere.
In “The Properties of Perpetual Light” — truly a must-read — author Julian Aguon suggests that all of this tragedy is causing us to lose our ability to be present and to show up for each other and ourselves. The acts of violence against immigrants, indigenous peoples, asylum seekers, refugees, women, and children are so frequent that, while horrifying, they are not startling.
“Stories of thousands of children being separated from their parents, caged, and tear gassed at the border,” writes Aguon. “Stories of one unarmed black boy after another (after another) being shot dead by a murderous cop. These stories don’t just come in with the morning paper. They come in with the morning light. These are stories of brutality, and they have become as banal as breakfast. Bacon and eggs. A cup of coffee.”
He calls it “the banality of brutality.”
“One would think this is enough to send us careening into collective action. But it’s not, at least it hasn’t been,” Aguon says.
So what is the right way to respond to ubiquitous human suffering? Should we remain sensitive and present to the pain of others, or is it better for our mental health to numb down and not feel anything?
I posed this question recently to Dr. George Everly, a leading psychologist, author, and international lecturer on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and the human stress response throughout the world.
“I think that numbing is protective in the short term, but metaphorically speaking at the 30,000-foot level, it can metastasize. Numbing ourselves to the trauma surrounding us serves to deprive us of the opportunity to learn how to prevent tragedies in the future,” he said. “One of the undesirable characteristics of post-traumatic stress disorder is emotional numbness, which fails to provide the motivation we need to move beyond where we are.”
According to Everly, crisis and danger provide possibility and opportunity. The more we numb out, the less likely we are to progress and move past the suffering.
He believes we must see adversity as terrible, tragic, unfortunate, and unfair, and the only thing worse is when people die meaningless deaths and society doesn’t learn anything.
We can’t control history, but he says “we have the opportunity to make a deliberate choice about which path to take when we come to that fork in the road where the possibility exists to learn something.”
There are few opportunities in life for a do-over, but in the aftermath of life-altering events like 9/11, we all get the chance to start over.