Paradise Lost

Life is odd. Though we tend to analyze incidents that occurred over the course of our conscious existence as separate, non-linking events, we tend to forget that the whole story is linear and continuous. When we think about the course our lives have taken, though it is inaccurate, we often times select specific points that were instrumental in our development. However, every now and then, something comes along that is truly significant and truly shaped who we are as people. I believe that there have honestly been very few of those events in my lifetime, yet one or two do stand out.

Looking back over the years, I remember two specific things happening in 2001. The first was rather innocuous: The inauguration of President Bush. I can easily recall this because I remember it was on one of the excessively rare occasions on which the day at least began below freezing. There was ice on my slide in the back yard. My parents were happy, and I think there was a general feeling of peace in our house. Our guy had won, and perhaps even more importantly in hind sight, Al Gore had lost. The inauguration was icing on the cake.

The second was much more serious, and has since demonstrated far more impact on me.  We were on our way out somewhere, and one of my siblings told my mom that the phone was ringing. We children waited dutifully in the vehicle, waiting for mom, who doubtlessly was quickly finishing the phone conversation. My mom is not late. Several minutes pass and we slowly exit the car and wander back in the house, wondering what is going on. The television was on. I tried to figure out what exactly was being shown. There seemed to be two skyscrapers and one of them had a plume of smoke coming out of it.

I had never seen these buildings before, and I couldn’t understand why this was such significant news. Moments later, I was exposed to the first act of mass violence I had personally witnessed. An airplane slammed into the second tower. At this point, my memory grows silent, more than likely due to shock. Even though I hadn’t really processed what exactly had just happened, something inside me changed. Prior to that day, all violent events were filtered through what my parents had chosen to tell me, in a strictly verbal form of communication. Now, I had seen before my very eyes the work of hate.

I personally watched men and women standing on the ledge of their office windows, gazing at the ground in a fatalistic manner, now fully aware that they were experiencing their last minutes. Silently and in awe I looked on as they jumped and plummeted. My mom was sitting next to me, equally as quiet. This event was not mediated, it was real and it was now.

As the towers fell, and the smoke and debris flowed unchecked into the streets, I saw people running. Adults running. They ran and they screamed. There was unbridled terror in their eyes. Grown men dashed off like children. My father was a grown man. He, like every other adult that I had ever seen in my seven years of life, was always calm and collected. Now I gathered that there were times when even the grown-ups had no answers, and knew only fear and uncertainty.

My youthful paradise was lost. I had seen evil and some of the most terrible tragedies of life had been set before me. No longer were evil actions hidden from my mind, they were present there now. I was exposed. And at the end of the day, a level of human experience that was totally closed to me was now known to me. I had seen men and women die. I had witnessed acts of cruel, brutal, and chaotic violence on a scale that only those also watching the TV had.

Yet, there was now also a side of humanity that I now had context and respect for. The word ‘hero’ actually meant something to me. Only in response to the greatest of evils does the greatest of goods become both necessary and visible. The New York firefighters who knew that they would probably die and answered the call anyway demonstrate this. I cannot imagine ever having the capacity for selflessness that these men had. Jesus tells us that true love has no greater man than he that gives up his life for his friends. The people in this instance didn’t even know the men and women they were trying to save, but they thought them worth the cost.

Would I have ever gotten to know what the true definition of heroism was without the attack? Perhaps. But I can guarantee that it would never have been so clearly spelled out and enacted before me. Though the day was terrible and awful, there were those who did not respond in kind, who did not allow themselves to simply dismiss their nobler human instincts in favor of animalistic terror. And it is those people that make the day worth reflecting on. Even in the midst of the unthinkable, when their lives were at their end, they showed a certain quality of the soul about them that we really don’t get to see apart from these once-in-a-lifetime tragedies.

September 11th, 2001 was shocking and deeply unnerving. My seven year-old self was not prepared for the experience. I doubt if even my nineteen year-old self would be able to deal with it today. But there was a depth of humanity put on display for the world to see that day that I may never be able to channel again. For that, I am thankful.

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