Nightmare or Wake-Up Call?
-by Alan Friedman

“This too shall pass.” The World Trade Center and 4000 human lives are gone. The freshness of the wound will also pass. Eventually, it must become an event as distant as the Battle of Antietam (where 7700 Americans were slaughtered by their fellow countrymen in one day). The lessons from this horror may pass as well. What can be retained? What is permanent? Despite our resistance, all things must change and eventually cease.

The shock of the 9/11 tragedy has shaken most of us deeply. It has stirred and awakened within us awarenesses that more often sleep in complacency.

Our grief and anger must not be denied, and the need to prevent future recurrences is manifest. However, the challenge for our spirits is not to be totally consumed by these, not to identify with them. This shock was great enough to jostle awake that part of us which yearns to remember the bigger picture, to understand that death and destruction have always been and must always be a part of the worldly experience.

While the politicians and media spoke immediately of war, I found almost everybody to be initially more compassionate, introspective, and searching for understanding. People rose to the occasion with open hearts unlike anything I've seen in my 48 years. Most prayed not for revenge but for understanding and especially for a peaceful world of safety and abundance for all. We remembered that we can't conquer hatred with hatred.

Why is there such hatred and evil in the world and even (supposedly) in the name of God? Why did my own father die in my childhood? We don't get to know the reasons for such terrible loss, and we're challenged to trust that it is “right,” that “the Universe is unfolding as it should.”

What we can do is to step back and look from a broader perspective. We can see that we’ve been given the incredible gift of a human lifetime that we could not possibly have earned or been entitled to. We can see that there is “nothing personal”, no malicious attack on us by God, when He “closes our account.” “He that giveth” must also be “He that taketh away.”

Without diminishing the atrocity and tragedy of the events, one can also choose to see in them a “gift,” a “silver lining” in that it has offered lessons on many levels. Our human need to find meaning in such an event will not succeed in finding a comfortable, rational purpose for it but may be satisfied by choosing to perceive it as an opportunity for us all to reconsider what our lives are really about.

People have been more “real.” We've seen tears in the eyes of news anchors and even in President Bush’s eyes. Everyone has seemed kinder, more open, more forgiving, and less concerned with the trivial irritations of daily life. Even crime statistics are down. In our newfound humility, we have remembered that we're not gods, but merely His children. We remembered that we are not the captains of our own destiny but rather the servants of a larger whole.

We have not repeated the mistake of Japanese internment camps. We have learned from our dark national history of racial discrimination. The terrorists could not turn us against our six million Muslim fellow Americans. I cried when I read that, for the first time ever, the American flag was flown at a local Indian Reservation. The intended religious wedge has instead given us the heartening realization of how far we have come, both within our society and as a nation of the planet, at truly cherishing diversity.

It seems as if we’ve all been searching for that helpful thought, that “magic bullet thought” that would let us feel better. We gave blood, donated billions of dollars, raised flags, and continued to fly. We have identified our enemy; we have engaged them in battle, and we are winning. We are working to prevent the recurrence of such disasters. The World Series went on. We have made great strides in rebuilding our illusions of righteousness, invincibility, and detachment. We are gradually settling back down to complacency, both physically and spiritually.

We are at a cusp, a potential turning point, as a civilization, as a nation, and as individuals. The power of this shock has created a temporary liquefaction, a melting, that allowed us a period in which to easily change before once again hardening into habitual ways. Has it been a nightmare, or a wake up call? That depends on whether or not we go back to sleep.

For a time, we have lived with more moment by moment uncertainty, acceptance of change, tolerance, awareness, raw emotions, humility, connection with others (including strangers), sense of community, gratitude for our many blessings, detachment from our unfulfilled desires, and passion. This has been a time when we were more truly alive. It has been less comfortable but more fulfilling on some deep level.

Those of us actively engaged on the spiritual path have had the recent company of wider society. Now, as others gradually nod back off to their preferred levels of drowsiness, we are each challenged with the opportunity to stay as awake as possible to uncertainty, awe, joy, and the freshness of each moment.