Upon learning of the death of Osama Bin Laden, my thoughts turned to the victims of 9/11 and their families. For those of you who have not read my book Humanity at Work: Encouraging Truth, Achievement and Spirit to Flourish in the Workplace (Chapel Hill Press 2008) I have attached below a letter that I wrote a month after the attack.
My Dear Friends,
As we blanket this country with prayer, may the Lord bless all those we love. Most of all, may the bountiful grace and peace of God be upon those for whom the emotional and personal loss in the recent tragedy of September 11th and the injustice of the devastation thrust upon them, is beyond measure.
When I was first told that a plan had crashed into the World Trade Center, I assumed that a madman had flown a small private plane into the building. Even after word of the second crash came to me, again I thought that the4 act involved a sole terrorist. Only after reaching a television did I realize that two commercial airliners had crashed into buildings familiar to all Americans but particularly so to those of us who are the sons and daughters of New York City.
As I watched the flames of the two crashes, my psyche was indelibly branded to its core with this certainty: I knew that th4ere had never been a moment in my life, nor do I expect one to occur in my future, when the line between good and evil had been so starkly drawn. So clear is this demarcation as to make pointless any assessment of amorality or quantification of wrong. No gradients of culpability attached to these atrocities; they were completely and absolutely wicked.
Beyond question, those who remain to bear witness to their memories of the dead lay claim to a level of grief that I cannot fathom. Like many, I try to lay hold vicariously to part of their burden; I find myself visualizing loved ones having been in the buildings, but the exercise is so dreadful that my mind mercifully retreats. As we see the victims’ families on our TV screens, I recall attending a gathering with Stephen Levine on the subject of death and dying. At that assembly, Levine said, “If you really love someone you would want them to die before you.” In broad generalities, I understood the intention of his comment; better you absorb the grief attendant to a piercing loss, I did not, however, appreciate the profound import of this lesson until I looked at the faces of the countless souls walking the streets of New York after September 11th, pictures of lost loved ones pinned to their clothing, looking, looking. “Have you seen…?”
Moreover, as we recoil from the carnage, we find ourselves compelled to accept other notions that we may have previously thought untenable. Let’s be honest, there are times when on some level, we can’t conceive that we ourselves will die. Such myths denying our mortality were blasted, though, as stories of what occurred in the towers came out to us from the media. As we learned how little in thought and deed separated many who lived from those who perished – stopping for a bagel and coffee, taking the time to vote early in local elections that day – we were forced to confront at point-blank range how precarious is our tenure as participants in life’s wonders. In recognizing the conditional nature of our existence, we revive an appreciation of how precious life is. Unfortunately of late, “precious” is too infrequently used to describe life. But that may change; one measure of our loss is to note that not even the relentless efforts of Hollywood to revitalize the value of life and lay waste our perceptions of the worth of a person could prepare us for the shock of the September 11th tragedy. This, my friends, speaks well of our humanity.
Nature, the greatest of worldly mentors, provides me with an additional insight. As you know, areas of California are occasionally scarred by roaring brush fires. Unfortunately, because of where people choose to live, we call these events “treats.” Actually, in terms of nature’s purpose, the fires serve a useful, nurturing role. Certain plants in California have seedpods that can only be opened by intense heat – by fire. Hence from an n inferno springs life! As television replayed the numbing sight of the towers collapsing in balls of fire and ash, I thought of this higher purpose of California’s fires. Let me explain.
Our culture is centered on self-fulfillment and individual achievement. Individualism and self-reliance are, of course, among the great and enduring American characteristics and have helped fuel our nation’s success. A related set of observations was expressed several years ago by Robert N. Bellah and others in The Good Society (1991). He and his colleagues observe that in some pockets of our country despair is fueled by a belief that many of the traditional institutions of our society are no longer capable of, or disposed to, helping those in need. I, too, have had the impression that other traditional American values have been muted of late. In my mind’s eye, the long-held American trait of being at our neighbor’s side at a time of need, not merely providing monetary support, has been shrouded in fabric of self-interest. Encased much as seeds – the kernels of life – are cloistered in a seedpod.
So the sequela to the fires that wreaked such ruin on New York and Washington are flowerings of America’s character, of which the greatest characteristic is our inbred compassion and national predisposition to reach out to those in need. After all, the sacrifices our country has endured for the betterment of mankind are a fact of history, as is the knowledge, if not always the acknowledgement, that Americans are among the most generous people on earth!
Finally, is it not true that in times of misfortune we examine again the tenets of our religious beliefs and dogma? That is another flowering of our national character at this time. I wonder whether you agree that if The Guinness Book of World Records listed the question most often asked, it would be what so often comes to lips after a personal loss or tragedy: “Oh, Lord, how could you let this happen?”
Native Americans express what they see as the fruitlessness of trying to comprehend the ways of the Lord by referring to the deity simply as “The Great Mysterious.” But I cannot be so dismissive or so wise, so I turned to other learned ones for more answers.
As I read I came upon the words of Gregory of Nyssa written nearly 800 years ago. The elegant simplicity of his answer to the question brought me great comfort:
Men have never discovered a faculty to comprehend the incomprehensible; nor have we ever been able to devise an intellectual technique for grasping the inconceivable. For this reason the apostle Paul calls God’s ways “unsearchable,” teaching us by this that the way which leads to the knowledge of divine nature is inaccessible to our reason; and hence none of those who lived before us has given us the slightest hint of comprehension suggesting that we might know that which in itself is above all knowledge.
The master then explains what we can hope for: “The man who purifies his own heart…will see the image of the divine nature in his own nature.” Isaac of Nineveh adds the observation that, “At every moment we trust our Father in heaven, who love infinitely surpasses the love of all earthly fathers and who gives us more than we ourselves could ask for or even imagine.”
Dame Julian of Norwich brings this promise: “The Lord…wants to give us grace to love Him and cleave to Him. For he beholdeth His heavenly treasure with so great love on earth that He will give us more light and highlight solace in heavenly joy, in drawing to Him for our hearts, for sorrow and darkness.” Furthermore, she reveals
I desired many times to know in what was our Lord’s meaning… Know it well, love is His meaning. Who reveals it to you? Love. What did He reveal to you? Love. Why does He reveal it to you? For Love…This I was taught, that love is our Lord’s meaning…Before God made us He loved us, which love was never slaked nor ever shall be, in this love He has done all His works, and in this love He has made all things profitable to us, and in this love our life is everlasting…In this we have our beginning, and all this shall we see in God without end.
One final story. While away in the North Carolina mountains I struggled to understand whether it is possible for anyone to treat those who committed the heinous acts of September 11th with other than disdain and even enmity. I certainly cannot. Shortly after Jean and I began our trip home we stopped at a rest area. At a small picnic area next to where we stopped about a dozen people were conducting a Sunday morning service. I could hear a woman at the gathering admit that there were individuals in her life whom she could not bring herself to love or even to like in a Christian sense. The leader of the service replied not to be concerned, for there were people in his life whom he had decided only the Lord could love: “I simply do the best I can!” he concluded.
May God bless each of you!
Yours as always,