9/11: Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence

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?

  • Holly Nye

    Thank you. Ironically, the ad on the right side of the page proclaims: Reflections on 9/11 Ten Years Later – Tell your Story. (NY Times)….

  • Barb Michaels

    Thank you for putting into words what I have been feeling. I agree this reliving every minute detail is not healing at all but instead picking at a scab.

  • http://jneiman.com Fr. Joseph Neiman

    Excellent blog! Only in the quiet of our hearts can the good Lord heal the wounds and help us put them back together – re member.

  • Edward Montgomery

    God bless you for saying so well what I could never have expressed myself.

  • http://smecsundaymorningforum.wordpress.com/ Daniel Rondeau

    Thank you for these words and of reminder about the difference memory/remembering. Amen. As I enter the quiet and silence of the night “Let it be.”

  • Louise Corbett

    Thank you. My message is about how forgiveness heals the one doing the forgiving. That is a part of remembering.

  • Denise Breslin

    I live in Manhattan and I couldn’t agree MORE!! It feels so exploitive to use this tragedy as a way to fill TV, radio time. It’s so much “noise.” Really turns my stomach. Silence is profound and called for – not a circus like they’re pepetrating at this 10 year mark. Shame!

  • http://prayingwithevagrius.wordpress.com Robb

    Thank you. Perfectly put.

  • http://www.biblical.edu Todd Mangum

    Nicely said, Diana. Sometimes words are not only inadequate, but unhelpful, even inappropriate. Thank you for YOUR “speech act” calling us to sane and godly reflection.

  • Martha K. Baker

    I worry that if we have not changed our behavior over the last 10 years, then we are not just because of sentiment this weekend. It’s time. I, too, am choosing silence over chattering and opining, reading articles, attending concerts, or even going to church; the only television I’m going to watch is Sanjay Gupta’s program on the chemicals that are killing the First Responders and the Republicans who refuse to pay for their care, all the while exploiting 9/11 as a battle cry. And in that silence, may I, may we, find the courage to be the America envisioned by our founders, the women and men who questioned everything, remained curious and studied until the day they died, rejoiced in fun and friends and love, and prayed on occasions. Thank you for this appeal, Diana, for it reminds us that words can be wasted if they’re not weighed.

  • David Bentley

    A few years before 9/11, three men led by Anwar Al-awlaki, visited the Pasadena office of Zwemer Institute. I use this visit to begin my novel, “Wedding Haircut: a prenuptial rite of passage for 9/11 terrorism.” The story shares more of the peaceful, interior struggles of a small mosque in San Diego than it does of the actual 9/11 terror attacks which the Saudi-Jesus seeker observes while in Amman. I would have preferred the subtitle to be “A stranger in a strange land” but felt that the publisher’s choice of linking a major news story with marketing a book was worthy of the change. Now it is time to move on and recognize those who want to live among us with full rights of citizenship.

  • http://www.theinneryear.blogspot.com Lynn Jericho

    Remembrance, silent, spoken, written or visual, is only a small part of the task of this anniversary. The healing, liberating and empowering deed is to imagine the future, to evolve our consciousness of humanity to a place where something new, noble and practical arises in our individual lives.

    On July 3, 2001 I moved into a brownstone in Jersey City. There was a deck off the living room where I could see the World Trade Towers across the Hudson River (about a mile away). Exactly ten weeks later, I stood on that deck and watched the towers fall and an hour later was down at the river standing in shock, wonder, and amazement at the looming emptiness filling with the smoke that would remain for weeks and weeks. The world had changed. I had changed.

    I had been working on a manuscript about the Twelve Senses. I put it aside and wrote an essay on trauma. I walked down to the waterfront often, especially at night when the lights at Ground Zero lit up the sky and illumined great changing shadows in the smoke.

    The mood of Ground Zero lit up the souls of most with a deep caring for community and a sense of possibility. But it also cast dark shadows of fear, anger, powerlessness on the same souls.

    A month later at a women writers conference in midtown, a woman introduced herself to me and asked to know about my experience of Ground Zero. We had been in a random gathering of woman at the lunch break who had been sharing their thoughts on the event that filled everyone’s thoughts and feelings. Inspired by years of working with Rudolf Steiner’s descriptions of the evolution of consciousness, my perspectives were not reactionary, alarmist, nor retaliatory. I was certain there was the potential for a new world view, a new moral and creative responsibility, a new relationship to a shared future if only each individual became a world citizen, if each human soul reflected on the questions living in the light of 9/11, not the shadows.

    This woman, Bethene LeMahieu, initiated a year long conversation that became a six-hour audiobook we called Ground Zero and the Human Soul: The Search for the New Ordinary Life. Well-reviewed, it spent a few months on the shelves of Barnes and Noble and Borders amongst all the other 9/11 literature and we were interviewed on a number of radio shows, but very few individuals ever heard the thoughts, the challenges, and the creative perspectives distilled from our hundreds of hours of conversations.

    As we all know the “leaders of nations” had another perspective — war, homeland security, destruction — they prolonged the terror of 9/11 promising a return to the life of 9/10. The conversations between Bethene and me imagine a different life for 9/12 and a dawning of a different consciousness in the individual.

    Will you search for the new soul life that will shape the new ordinary life?

    And please, have conversations about the future that is shaped by you and all the other world citizens, not governments, not corporations, not ideologies.

  • http://www.theinneryear.blogspot.com Lynn Jericho

    If you would like to listen to these six conversations you can download them at http://www.theinneryear.blogspot.com:

    The Creative Challenge of Ground Zero & A New Picture of the Human Being
    Feeling and the Search for Personal Harmony
    Thinking and the Search for Personal Truth
    Willing and the Search for Personal Goodness
    Meeting Evil
    The Search for the New Ordinary Life

  • Rob Jackson

    With all respect to the wonderful voice you have, I completely disagree. I think part of our job as a Church is to examine major cultural events (and the anniversary of 9/11 certianly qualifies) and reframe those things theologically and in the light and hope of Christ. Silence on our part would certianly be misunderstood by many as ignoring the issue, something our critics have rightly brought to our attention over the years. I think this Sunday an opportunity to model responsible and faithful reaction and to provide space for people to come to terms with this event while looking for the movement of the Holy Spirit, and the reconsiliation we proclaim is in our midst.

  • Linda Ammons

    Well said. So much of music is in the silences, the rests. So much Truth rests in similar voids of the soul.

  • Karen Field

    My only concern about not showing pictures and talking about the history is that I teach a 1st grade class this year and not one of them was even born at the time of these events. As a matter of a fact, not one kid in my elementary school would have any memories of these events if they had no images to look at. My school is as ethnically diverse as you can imagine, with many muslims from many countries. We are struggling with how to address this issue appropriately.

  • http://www.simplesecret.wordpress.com Anna

    Saw a link to this through a friend. Thank you. You put into eloquent words what I’ve been feeling!

  • http://godspace.wordpress.com Christine Sine

    A beautiful post. I love that distinction between remembering and retelling stories and the need to remember in silence. Our world is filled with words, images and noise all of which so often distract us from the truths that we need to hear.

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