The kids and I spent 9/11 in a typically American way, rushing from one place to another, all in the name of fun while scarfing down fast food containing more carcinogens that the residents of Chernobyl experience on daily basis. Our day culminated in a visit to the zoo which consisted of scurrying from one exhibit to the next, desperately trying to absorb more factoids than one really needs to know about the various species of penguins or the reproductive habits of gibbons. The end result: arriving home exhausted and cranky, declaring “Never again!”
But in between the hustling and scurrying, there were a few moments today that touched me in a distinctly American way. I had that moment this morning that I experience every year. The date suddenly hitting me; the date that used to mean nothing much but that now functions as a psychological marker for my generation. Just as my grandparents’ generation was branded by “Where were you when you heard about Pearl Harbor?” and my parents’ by “What were you doing when you heard Kennedy was shot?”, I will never hear that three number combination without remembering the smell of pancakes on a clear morning in September; the bewilderment and then horror; the feelings of vulnerability and fear.
So this morning, Jim and I took some time to show the kids footage of the Twin Tower attacks. And, choking back tears, I told them the story of Flight 93 and the courage of firefighters and policemen who rushed “Into the Fire” as Bruce Springsteen puts it. And I explained why I honked as we drove under several overpasses, decorated with flags and signs commemorating the day. At one point, Bailey (our nine-year-old) turned to me and in an accusatory tone said, “No one ever told me there was a day.” I knew we had discussed 9/11 with him before, so it wasn’t as if he didn’t know about it. Rather, it was the collective remembrance that struck him.
I often feel conflicted when discussing patriotism with the kids. I have no problem praising the sacrifices of our neighbor (and his family) who has been deployed, leaving behind five children and a devoted, grief-stricken wife. But when you move from a micro to a macro level, it gets a bit tricky for me. Kids are so black and white, wanting to know who was the good guy and who was bad. The subtleties and complexities of national politics don’t always translate into such neat categories. But maybe they don’t need to. After all, a country is made up of a lot of little pieces, not one homogenous glob. Too often, we group people together in an effort, perhaps, to numb our conscience as we criticize that group to death. A country, a race, a religion is so much easier to peck to death than many unique individuals. This disease of generalization seems to plague our age when to swear allegiance to any one particular group is an act of elitism. I am by no means willing to sacrifice what is owed my country in gratitude and loyalty, but just what is it we owe to this place we call home? And what should be reserved for the greater good not to mention our heavenly home?
Jim has shared an insight which as helped me to reconcile a bit of this tension. He was talking about our nation’s history not as a nation but as a collective of individuals many of whom came seeking religious freedom, a better life for their children, willing to make great sacrifices to ensure the rights of others. When you consider all the particular lives that make up the history of our nation, the mosaic takes on a beauty of its own that no one picture could ever capture. It’s like I told the kids at the zoo “If you look closely enough at anything God has created, you will find something beautiful and complex, something well worth studying.” So it’s all for one and one for all this 9/11. Let us all strive to make our piece of “We the People” something beautiful and worthy of study.