There are many seminal moments in our lives, times when there is a decisive shift that changes us in a significant way. Some of these moments are personal ones: a death or tragedy, meeting one’s spouse, the birth of one’s child. Others are times of significance to the larger community: an earthquake, war, or flood.
I’ll bet there are many of us who remember where we were or what we were doing when President John F. Kennedy was shot or when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. The terrorist attack of September 11, 2001, was another of those critical and influential moments in our collective lives. So many of us remember being glued to our television sets, watching the tragedy unfold before our eyes. We were devastated. We were frightened. And we knew that a momentous shift had occurred.
One of the most searing and gut-wrenching memories I have of that day was watching two people holding hands and jumping out of one of the towers to their deaths. There they were with two choices before them: die from the smoke and fire or take the tiny chance that someone or something would catch them below to break their fall. So, hand in hand they flew into history, giving us another clear image of the human cost of that carnage.
Those two people flew into our memories, too, leaving a searing reminder to us of the power of friendship, of relationship, and of community. For me they represent the everywoman and everyman of that day. In fact, watching them fall, you couldn’t tell their gender, race, age, or sexual orientation. We know nothing about them. We don’t know who they were or what their life stories were. But hand in hand, they renewed, for me, the hope of the best of who we can be.
Many of us gathered with others that night to pray, to cry, to cling to each other for some sort of emotional and spiritual support. Many people joined teams of relief workers going down to the sites of the devastation to help with any rescue and recovery that might be possible. Many also mourned the loss of loved ones who perished in the towers, or at the Pentagon, or on one of the airplanes. And, I think many of us also counted our blessings, looked around at those we loved, and thanked whatever God or sacred spirit we pray to that we were not alone that day.
It’s the aloneness that hurts the most at times of great tragedy or joy. When we have no one to share our emotions with, our tragedy is intensified and our joy is diminished. And we were not alone that day and in the days that followed. There was a sense of solidarity and community throughout much of the world. People from everywhere, even many Muslim countries, expressed real outrage at what happened and offered support for the people of the United States. It was one of the few times in my life when I have felt being part of a global community coming together in the face of unspeakable violence.
And what has happened in the ensuing years? Do we still feel connected to each other and to people around the world? I’m afraid not. That feeling of community, support, and solidarity quickly faded, especially when we went to war in Iraq. I long for that feeling of global connection to return and think we need to take some steps today, on this the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attack, to make that happen.
The biggest shift for us would be to see ourselves as part of a larger community of peoples and nations. In order for me to be part of any relationship, I need to listen to the other person or people with love and compassion in my heart. I need to approach that relationship with a sense of humility, knowing that I alone don’t have all the answers and that I do need to work with the other person or people to forge answers that meet all of our needs and are mutually beneficial. Too often our approach in our personal or collective lives is one of arrogance rather than one of compassion and humility and this is often our undoing.
Yes, approaching others with compassion and humility is risky. It requires us to let down our guard a little, to take the other person more seriously. But, isn’t that what our collective religious traditions ask of us? Don’t all of our scriptures ask us to love our neighbor as ourselves?
When we approach each other as equals, with compassion and humility, we walk hand in hand with them. We are joined in seeking solutions to global issues together. And when we take risks, when we have to literally or figuratively jump off buildings together, hand in hand, it will be more likely that someone will be there to catch us and break our fall.
This above has been excerpted from a sermon prepared for delivery on September 11, 2011 by the Rev. Arthur Lavoie, minister of the First Parish Church in Dorchester. firstparishdorchester.org.