What, then, was to be learned when the towers came down? That we were no longer an island in the sea, safe in our own defenses, isolated, "good." That in some way, intangible evil had indeed touched us—lifted us out of our innocence and left us lessened, our youth belatedly spent. We reeled in the dark as this apparition blasted our complacency. We sought to comfort each other, and longed to know the worst.
The world, it was noted then, changed overnight. Even before the questions of who and what began, the questions of how grasped our souls and began to change us, for we could not remain unchanged. How, in the past tense, meant what strange concatenation of evil had led up to this; how could we be shaken in so unexpected a way? How, in the future tense, meant how could we respond? For respond we would, and in all the bonding and reassuring and heroism and tears of that time, we remained torn by the knowledge that we would act, and that our actions would define us.
The first days were the hardest days, as we sat, unaccustomed, in the world's nurturing embrace, striving to become great of soul. The outpouring of love was real, and we appeared to chafe, no longer able to hold ourselves up by our own exertion. The power that is made perfect in weakness eluded us, and the power defined by bombs and dollars burst gasping from the embryonic mass. As we struck, the world recoiled, gradually withdrawing its love, then its support, then what little remained of its sympathy. Our actions, which did define us, were those that we could perform by rote, by comfortable habit, by flexing our atrophied but desperate muscles and flailing blindly.
I wish I could tell a different outcome to this story. Ten years down the road, I am haunted by unrealized possibilities. The present has become our prison, as is all too evident from the way our politics have ceased to function. The glue that held us together in the past is stretched beyond the bursting point, and the flailing continues, as our worn-out strength is unable even to hold up our own weight, while the once sympathetic world licks its wounds and regroups.
There will be a lot of empty words this week, and my guess is that the world will not much care. What it needed from us, expressed in that inchoate embrace of ten years past, is what we never tried to give in return. The new, creative thinking that once compassed our greatness has yet to appear, as we turn on ourselves and fail to lead the way out of crises as great as any faced in the last century, when our self-assurance matched our untested power.
I try not to despair. The courage and will to solve the environmental and economic crises that imperil the world are still here. I can read them in countless blog posts and comments, and hear them from friends and relatives throughout the country—even (or especially) here in central Texas. My horror this week is that the swagger and desperate grasping for self-assurance that are likely to compete for our attention on the 10th anniversary of that awful day will only serve to strengthen the process that has made us less bold, less visionary, less ourselves than we have ever been before.
May the God who is the source of all wisdom shine some light through this darkness and enable us to see. May the prayers of the intercessors, far from the seats of political power, be heard and turned to hard wisdom. May we all be moved to rediscover our core values, and give to the world what it still so desperately needs us to give.