Tag Archives: 9/11

Expect Calamity, Believe in Hope

At breakfast in the cafeteria at Wheaton College on that Tuesday morning, someone I knew—I don’t even remember who—mentioned something about a plane hitting the World Trade Center. In my mind I envisioned a tiny Cessna accidentally clipping the building. Didn’t think much of it. If this had happened in later years my phone would have been buzzing with texts and tweets telling me of the event’s magnitude. But this was 2001.

By lunch, I had seen it all on TV. Horrors my 18-year-old college freshman suburban self had no prior paradigm for. Planes full of people crashing into buildings full of people, collapsing them onto even more people. People on fire jumping to their deaths from heights unimaginable. The Pentagon attacked. Another plane down in Pennsylvania. Reports of a fire on the National Mall. Rumors that the Sears Tower was also targeted. In that moment, the worst was possible, even expected. What other disaster movie fictions would become reality before the day was done?

Anything seemed possible. And indeed, in the days and years that followed, we’ve come to expect more 9/11s. We became jumpy, addicted to “breaking news” alerts, ready for the craziest of crazy things to happen. Everything was interpreted through the lens of 9/11 and terrorism. The D.C. snipers, the Anthrax scare, Iraq. And even if 9/11 part two didn’t happen, there were plenty of reminders that the world was as unsteady and calamity-prone as that had day proved. A terrorist trying to blow a plane up with a shoe? Happened. Coordinated bomb attacks on public transportation in major European cities like London and Madrid? Check. Dirty bomb or biological warfare attack on a major American city? It only seemed to be a matter of when.

Beyond terrorism, we watched as natural disasters unfolded in unprecedented ways: Katrina’s destruction and its accompanying politics, the Asian tsunamis, the Haiti earthquake, etc. We watched the stock market collapse in a week. We watched wars unfold in the Middle East. We watched unemployment rise and the recession linger.

Am I a member of the “9/11 Generation?” I don’t know. But the day certainly altered my view of the world. 9/11 happened two weeks into my college career, two weeks into my life as an independent adult. The post-9/11 world has been my paradigm of adult life. And what does that mean for me?

I think it means that no calamitous event really surprises me anymore. It’s expected. The Norway shooter from a few months ago? Egregious. Evil. But entirely expected. Countries like Iceland going completely broke? Of course. A freak virus unleashed on the globe that turns us all into zombies? I wouldn’t be surprised.

Where does this attitude leave us? With a healthy recognition of our smallness and of the fragility of life. I think it humbles us and, at least for me, leaves me praising God for his bigness and thanking him for every breath, recognizing that it’s only by the grace of God that I survived another day in a world so ever-armed with death and destruction. Maybe 9/11 and its attendant “I’m small and a big God is what I need” reality check had something to do with the revival of Calvinism. Who knows.

But expecting calamity is only half of the story. The other half is hope. Since 9/11, I think there’s been a revival of interest in eschatological hope… not necessarily hope to escape this troubled world, but hope to renew the brokenness of the present age in whatever way we can.

The daily possibility of 9/11 style disaster could easily cause us to say “the End is Near!” and certainly many have jumped to those “we must be in the end times” conclusions. But 10 years after 9/11, the world is still coping, still hoping, still working, still here. Just as 10 years after Rome fell, the world pressed on, and a generation after the Plague wiped out half of Europe, people still laughed.

I think it’s possible to simultaneously expect the worst and hope for the best. Maybe this is what the Christian life is about, actually. Between the calamity of the cross—so visceral, so always in memory—on one side, and the conquering hope of resurrection on the other, we exist as believers. We deal with the worst of times, grieve, suffer, but know that better is coming. Sometimes better is close; sometimes it’s far.

In the meantime, we live by grace.

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Rebirth

Rebirth is a powerful new documentary about 9/11, released last week in advance of the 10-year anniversary of that infamous day in history. The documentary, directed by Jim Whitaker, is part of a larger “Project Rebirth,” which is interested in the process of renewal and growth–both physically, emotionally, psycholigically–in the wake of the traumas of 9/11.

The film follows five individuals of various backgrounds who were each affected in some tragic way on 9/11… Either by losing a spouse, or friend, or parent, or sibling, or just being severely injured. These subjects are interviewed once a year for each of the years following 9/11, and by reflecting on camera about how their lives have changed and how they’ve dealt with the grief over the years, we see the gradual process of rebirth in each of their lives.The human component of this film is juxtaposed with stunning timelapse photography from Ground Zero, which captures the gradual cleaning up of the site and the construction of the memorial and the new Freedom Tower, currently in the middle of construction.

Rebirth is one of the best films about dealing with grief that I’ve ever seen. Among the film’s many observant truths is the fact that processing and moving through grief can happen in a variety of ways. Each of the five stories is different. One person hurts deepest for the first few years, then remarries, then has kids and gradually accepts a happy new life. Another has a delayed reaction of grief… being stricken with post-traumatic stress disorder a few years after 9/11. Another channels his grief into action, joining the Dept. of Homeland Security and then as a bodyguard for Rudy Giuliani’s 2008 presidential campaign.

Rebirth is about growth–how each of us, given enough time, can start to heal. I can see this film being amazingly helpful, and hopeful, for people who have recently dealt with tragedy in their lives. In the moment, grief attacks us with the seeming impossibility that life will get better. But as this film so beautifully displays, even the most horrific of traumas–though it never fully leaves us–becomes a smaller, less invasive horror in our lives as time passes.

Interestingly, no one in Rebirth mentions anything about spirituality or the role of faith in their life (aside from one character who says he’s not at all religious). And yet the film feels quite spiritual, even transcendent. It’s all about reconciliation, renewal, regained trust, hope. It’s about death giving way to life. It’s about an act of terrorism giving rise to eventual redemption. It’s a Resurrection film.

New York Cares

The subway is a porno
And the pavements they are a mess
I know you’ve supported me for a long time
Somehow I’m not impressed
But New York Cares…

Those lyrics are from Interpol’s “NYC,” one of the iconic songs of the immediate post-9/11 era of music. It’s a song that captures the confused emotional tenor of the city in the traumatic aftermath to that dark day 8 years ago, a mix of the old New York harsh-edged urbanity and the “United We Stand” solidarity of a city reborn amidst ashes.

Perhaps moreso than other cities, New York has that peculiar combination of crowded connectedness and desolate urban isolation. On one hand the city cares and accepts all people and all dreams; on the other, it is an impenetrable, callous machine of industry and ambition. On 9/11 both faces merged as the city in all of its seething terror and magnificence forever changed. Before that day, NYC was the incomprehensible nexus of the world. But after that day, NYC was forced to consider the truth of its mythos: that it is still just a city, vulnerable and imperfect as anything else.

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote this of New York City, in his 1932 essay “My Lost City”:

From the ruins, lonely and inexplicable as the sphinx, rose the Empire State Building and, just as it had been a tradition of mine to climb to the Plaza Roof to take leave of the beautiful city, extending as far as eyes could reach, so now I went to the roof of the last and most magnificent of towers. Then I understood-everything was explained: I had discovered the crowning error of the city, its Pandora’s box. Full of vaunting pride the New Yorker had climbed here and seen with dismay what he had never suspected, that the city was not the endless succession of canyons that he had supposed, but that it had limits – from the tallest structure he saw for the first time that it faded out into the country on all sides, into an expanse of green and blue that alone was limitless. And with the awful realization that New York was a city after all and not a universe, the whole shining edifice that he had reared in his imagination came crashing to the ground.

Of all the things 9/11 has taught us, and of all that it has meant, perhaps one of the greatest lessons has something to do with this “crashing to the ground” realization. Empires fall. Power and prominence and pride are impermanence. The things we create and build and glory in… they all fail us. Even the grandest of structures and dreams will disappear with time.

But New York cares. Or we do. …Or we can.

There are September 11ths every day, in every corner of the globe, in every loss and failure and setback. What else are we to do—against this massive, ceaseless, impersonal machine called mortality—but look each other in the eye and say Shalom. Resolution is coming soon.