Does the drowsy yet relentless passage of time really heal all wounds? Should it?
For the first time since that fateful day eight years ago, I woke up, got ready, and walked out of the door without clutching a flag, without remembering what day it was. When I realized that I’d forgotten, I got a brand new ache in my heart.
Now that the pain is abating. . . are we turning it into another empty ceremonial event, like we did to Memorial Day?
It’s not that I want to wallow or be immobilized by the horror and loss of that day. In fact, I’m troubled by the tendency of some to fetishize it (I once I saw something on TV called “100 most significant moments in TV history” wherein even the moon landing came in second to the images of those attacks). I wince when politicians shamelessly appeal to the painful memory of that day to push their worldviews on us.
But… I don’t want to forget.
I haven’t yet – and I doubt I ever will – forget December 2nd, the day my father died. In a sense I have nurtured that particular wound in my heart instead of letting it scab over. Because while his soul may be celestial and eternal, I love and miss the finite bodily form of him, the man, my father, made of flesh and blood, a man with a voice and a smile and a touch. Records remain of his insights, his language, his great wit, his ideas (and his memory that “lives on in me” as countless people told me after he died, well meaning people, with their parents still alive, trying their best to help me “snap out of” my pain). But that pain is the one of the few authentically extant parts of my real relationship with the real man. It’s the thing that most accurately recalls him by keeping alive his absence, by refusing to substitute his actual presence with echoes and abstractions of him, however beautiful those are.
September 11 has important echoes and abstractions. We’ve learned things about intolerance, about repressive religious doctrines, about unfathomable hatred, about compassion and solidarity, about selfless acts of kindness and courage, and about loss, on a grand scale. President Obama is right to call us to serve our country and our communities – it’s the best way to honor the fallen and to rekindle the flames of the great American civic spirit. But for me, September 11 can’t help remaining a day of mourning as well. A day of remembering the injury and the loss – of three thousand people, of the physical integrity of a great city, and of our collective innocence about what can happen to us, right here in America.
I don’t want us to be paralyzed by loss but I don’t want us to be anesthetized against it either. I want to continue to mourn it in some small and reverent way so that we never confuse the lives that once were with the tributes that we pay them, however beautiful and touching those are.
In fact, I’d like us to resurrect the true meaning of Memorial Day. It’s chilling that we’ve turned it into the national day of beach and barbecue. I know it was a century and a half ago, but the Civil War was the deepest trauma our country has ever lived through and though its memory is dim, its legacy is real. Also, given the alarming rifts that have been forming in our polity in the last decade and a half, there are really urgent reasons to remember and mourn that particular past.
Incidentally: say what you will about secular liberalism, but, as I’ve explained before, secular liberalism is the reason you don’t see people like me (and you?) go and drive a plane full of innocent people into towers full of innocent people in someone else’s country just because they don’t share our belief systems.