For weeks now, news programs, radio commentators, and blogs have encouraged people to share their memories about 9/11. Some of it has been very moving, some trite, and no small amount divisive. But all of it has reminded me of one thing: words often fail to express what is beyond emotional comprehension. As poet Ardrienne Rich writes, “Tonight I think/no poetry/will serve.” More than anything, on this anniversary, I wish to be silent.
A few may protest saying that it is important to remember the events of a decade ago. That is true. A people must know their past. But who alive has forgotten? Indeed, the media will not let us forget. The images of 9/11 are seared in our minds forever, replayed millions of times on television and across the Internet.
There is, however, a difference between memory—the snapshots that stay in our minds always—and remembering. Remembering means to “put back together” the pieces of the past, to rearrange the pictures of memory in order to make meaning, to heal, to forgive, or to inspire. Memory and remembering are related, but they are not the same thing. Memory is simply not forgetting, the process in which we feel the power of events once again. Remembering is the hard work of seeing, understanding, making sense of, and learning from the past.
In the decade since 9/11, we have not forgotten. But we have treated the events of 9/11 rather like taking a video of a loved one’s death—and replaying the end over and over and over. Anyone who has suffered the pain of death knows that endlessly playing a DVD of the last moments of that person’s life will never lead to healing. Indeed, watching death do its worst repeatedly opens wounds and grief anew, imprinting the immediacy of suffering on the minds of the mournful. In order to heal, to “move on,” as counselors say, one must do the hard work of death—to patiently remember the whole life of those who have died and to learn from the gifts that person left behind. Remembering is a process, a spiritual one at that, by which we come to terms with mortality and flawed humanity, as well as the power of courage and abiding love.
We all have a memory of 9/11. But have we remembered?
Silence makes room for remembering. I don’t want to hear patriotic songs, jingoistic speeches, or even well-considered rehearsals of “what happened on that day.” I want to see no pictures of burning towers or flags waving. I wish for empty public space, a communal practice of quiet, to reflect on not only what happened on 9/11 but in the long, sad decade since. For just a brief time, I long for, in the words of an ancient hymn, “all mortal flesh keep silence,” in the face of the fear and trembling that gripped us one September day ten years ago.
I wonder what we would find there—of our selves, our neighbors, and God—in that void of words?