We all remember what happened eleven years ago this very Tuesday. Last year, on the ten year anniversary of 9/11, I wrote the following words in my journal, reflecting on not just the profundity of the day itself, but some lessons that my life’s course had been teaching me the past few years:
Why does death change everything? How is it that we can hate the soul of another, and yet when informed of their impending deceasing we arrive at their bed as if we had never left? Why is forgiveness and love so incredibly easy and forthcoming when the loss of a long lost loved one is upon us? How can I as a “good” and “loving” human being despise another and then rush to their deathbed should I be called to do so? I believe this reveals more of the barbarity of man than the inhospitality of God.
One of my favorite movies is “Thirteen Days,” about the Cuban Missile Crisis. A top member of the national security team at the time looked right at Bobby Kennedy at a certain point in the debate about what to do and said: “Bobby, sometimes there is only one right choice, and you thank God when it’s so clear.”
Looking back on 9/11, I can’t help but feel the same. I woke up early this morning to a perfectly sunny, blue sky, just like that day. You know, we throw around the feel-good phrases like “Never Forget,” and “God Bless the USA,” but I am tempted to think that at the end of the day, that’s all they are: lines that make us feel good, but which are ultimately meaningless. What’s the point of a line we can say, but not live?
We certainly learned things as a nation. We realized, without any room for doubt, who our enemy was, and to a certain extent, the nature of that enemy. But if we peel back the veil of time these past eleven years, we, or at least I, remember that there was something much deeper, and far more powerful that we remembered after 9/11. We remembered each other. We remembered in a new way love of family, love of friends, and love of fellow man. Most importantly, at least for a fleeting moment, we remembered God. 9/11 was one of those moments that, while all of us wish it had never happened, nonetheless induced a catharsis that probably would not have happened without it, and despite the pain and the anguish, the images of our fellow citizens being murdered, we thanked God that, at least for the moment, it was all so clear. Our hearts had waxed cold. Many of us realized that day that the love we thought we had for our loved ones was not what it should be, or that, perhaps it was strong, but we rarely took the pains to express it. In other words, we took our loved ones for granted. On 9/11, it was undeniable that, as the scriptures have taught us for thousands of years and we refuse to listen, life is short. Those we love most, and even ourselves, could be gone in a moment.
When I wrote that journal entry, at the same time that I was reflecting on 9/11, I was also remembering the death of my Aunt Felicia. She was not a blood relative, but she mine as well have been, for she was probably the single best “family” member I have ever had beyond my immediate family. She was like a second mother to me, and no one, no one, served as selflessly, as lovingly, as joyfully as she did. I remember the day my mom called in 2006 to tell me that her cancer had returned. Through a long series of many months, and what eventually was slightly over a year, I saw this truly beloved person in my life deteriorate right before my eyes. The cancer began in her lungs, and quickly spread to her liver, her kidneys, her spine, her brain, and every other conceivable place in her body. It was everywhere, and it was literally consuming her. At the end, she could no longer walk because of the excruciating pain in her spine, and she was sleeping twenty three hours a day. She was completely bald, and her face, her beautiful, loving, welcoming face, had become swollen almost beyond recognition.
I remember the last trip we took to go see her. She was so happy just to be with us. She had always been happy, but Aunt Felicia outdid herself that time. We all just baked, made great food, watched movies, talked for hours, laughed like little kids…it was a truly wonderful time. But then it came to an end, and the weight of the fact that this could very well be the last time we ever saw our Aunt Felicia hit all of us. I kept it together for the sake of my cousins, my sister, and most of all my mom, but I was literally in pain at the thought of losing her. I remember the last hug, which lasted for at least a minute. I remember her whispering in my ear not to worry, that even if she did leave, she’d be with Jesus. I was hugging her with the desire to encourage her, and here she was encouraging me. I said I loved her, she said she loved me, we kissed, and that was the last time I saw her. She was dead a few months later.
A few months after the trip, but before her death, I put pen to paper to write a letter to my Aunt Felicia. Because she had to sleep so much, it was hard to get a hold of her to say hello over the phone, so I figured the fail-safe way would be to send her a letter. I wrote it in February of 2007. I really poured my heart out to her, recalling the so many good memories, and offering my own encouragement. But I never sent it. I was afraid to. The letter mine as well have been a goodbye letter, and I remember a deep inner sense that by sending it, I would almost be acknowledging, perhaps even sealing her fate. I set it aside, saying to myself that I would send it later, but never did. I never got to speak with her on the phone. That last hug was the last time we ever spoke.
Rummaging through some of my papers in February of 2011, I found the unfinished letter. When I found it, I wept. Why had I not sent it? What had I been so afraid of? It was one of those tasks that for all those years I had actually remembered was undone, but which I always, and quite conveniently, stashed away in the file cabinet in the back, pretending as if it wasn’t a big deal anymore. I was confronted in 2011 with the consequences of my poor, and ultimately cowardly decision to not send that letter four years previous. I had refused to love as I should have because I was afraid. Did my Aunt Felicia know I loved her? Absolutely. But man, what a letter like that would’ve meant to her at a time like that. But my fear won the day.
I think there is a reason that the Bible tells us perfect love casts out all fear. It does. It truly does. What I think 9/11 taught us, on the deepest level, was that we had better stop being afraid of loving each other, we had better get over the occasional awkwardness of expressing love, we had better get over the fear and the risk of pain that it always involved, for the fear and pain that comes when you no longer have any chances is far worse. We also realized that true love is sacrificial. It’s not just some fuzzy feeling. It’s a commitment. It took unspeakable tragedy for many of us to finally get a closer glimpse of the type of love Jesus had always called us to, and had exhibited perfectly Himself. At the time I wrote my journal entry, I was also struggling with some issues with very close friends. I had no doubt that if one of us was on our deathbed, all argument would immediately cease, our frustration would turn to true love and solidarity again, and all issues would be gone. How strange I thought. Perhaps it was a thought very similar to that which came to mind on September 12. We are so quick to judge God Himself, to ask Him “How could you let this happen?” And yet, it was our hearts which were cold, unfeeling, and dead. What we came face to face with on September 12 was not God’s sins, but our own.
So have we forgotten? Do we still run to the God who was so important to us on September 12? Have we forgotten the brotherhood of that day?
One of the great ironies of the aftermath of 9/11 was that so many of our leaders, in an effort to encourage us, quoted Isaiah 9:10, when after a national tragedy the people of Israel said the following: “The bricks have fallen, but we will build with dressed stone; the sycamores have been cut down, but we will put cedars in their place.” What was apparently not realized is that in the previous verse, it said that this was said “in pride and in arrogance of heart.”
So have we forgotten? I fear that we have, and as I said in my journal entry, it is not owing to God’s lack of hospitality, but to the barbarity of our own sinful nature, if it indeed takes a 9/11 for us to be reminded of the love we ought show to each other, and but for a very short time indeed.
Today, I remember to give that hug, to make that call, to offer that encouragement, to love sacrificially, to dare to even say “I love you” to someone I actually do love. I remember that to be a friend is a holy and sacred honor, I remember that to bless is far better than to be blessed, that time is short, so there is no time to waste. I had better remember to love as I have been loved by my Father in Heaven, for the risk of not loving is so much greater than the risk of loving.
My Lord once said: I came that you might have life, and have it to the full. And yet, He died on a Cross for me, for you, condemned, with spit on his face, having been betrayed by His closest friends, all while doing it for them. My Lord, while appearing weak, contemptible, and cowardly, carried to completion the single greatest act of courage in the history of mankind. So today I remember that love like that, first with that man, and then with others, is what it is to have life to the full. Today, I remember that love is an act of courage.
That is something that I hope I shall Never Forget.