It has been ten years since 9/11, the event that has shaped the worldview of my children’s generation in the same way that the Kennedy and King assassinations shaped the worldview of mine. I wrote the following in 2001 to come to terms with the tragedy of the Twin Towers and Flight 93. I still believe every word of it now, ten years later.
As a lifelong pacifist, I believe that retaliation is never the answer. Retaliation is the problem and justice is the answer. We of the U.S. must face up to the consequences of our actions in the world and understand that we are not immune to large-scale tragedy. If nothing else, this was the mighty lesson of 9/11. We must understand that the family members of those we have murdered in other lands, for whatever reason, lofty or not, might hold a valid grudge. We must accept that we are vulnerable to their rage. Will Americans ever understand that our safety and security at home depends on the safety and security of the rest of the world? ALL the rest of the world? We are in this together.
On the evening of September 11, 2001, I received an email from my friend Sue. She wanted to connect with her friends around the country. She told us that in the wake of the terrorist attacks within our borders, she was at a loss for what to do. She took some peaches from her peach tree to a neighbor. While walking to the neighbor’s house with the peaches, she resolved to engage in acts of kindness with a new dedication. She decided this would be her way of responding to the inhumanity that threatens to engulf us. The significance of Sue’s choice of action is not lost on me, a Jew, whose family would not be alive today if not for the simple acts of kindness committed by ordinary people struggling to remain human and caring in extraordinarily inhuman and brutal circumstances. In the broader vision of history, many of these simple acts of kindness are recognized as heroism. Thus, in the post-9/11 world, we must act bravely by holding fast to the moral value of caring for others. We must hold fast to the value of love.
It is not so difficult to love our families, our own children. It is far more difficult to love the stranger, the other, those not like us whose values and perceptions differ from ours. I do not believe that people are fundamentally the same. As long as we think that people are fundamentally the same, then racism, injustice, war, and terrorist acts will continue. People are different and that difference is the essence of the richness, the wonder of humankind. That difference is our greatest resource, our greatest challenge, and the gem that we must chisel from our rough perception. Rather than forcing similarity where it doesn’t exist, we must take that terrifying step of trying to walk in someone else’s shoes, of making the effort to see the world through someone else’s eyes. Terrifying because we risk transformation. We risk being deeply and irrevocably changed by what we learn from this experience.
Unlearning racism is not the same as tolerance. Tolerance is putting up with the mystifying actions of someone different from oneself. Tolerance is a fragile veneer. Unlearning racism is about opening our hearts to the possibility that there are beliefs not our own that have value and that our personal view of the world and our view of life is not the one and only right one, the only truth. There are many truths. A Buddhist monk once told me that being a good Jew was being a good Buddhist in his worldview. Unfortunately for us struggling humans, oftentimes different truths are in conflict with each other. If we truly wish to see justice and peace prevail in the world, then we must accept that our personal truths constitute only one perception out of a multitude of perceptions, and that right and wrong may not be as straightforward as we would wish. My fundamental truths and values may differ considerably from those of someone else, in fact, they may contradict each other. Who has the vision or the right to determine which of our truths or values is better or more accurate or correct? We have to live with that and find a way to avoid fighting about it. We have to be big enough, wise enough, brave enough, compassionate enough, and caring enough to learn from each other and to permanently change each other.
In short, we must all show the bravery of heroes. We must take each other peaches from our trees. We must listen, question, strive to understand, listen to the words of the voice and the words of the heart. Listen without fear of transformation, confusion, and doubt. Listen to hear more than one truth. Listen as if our lives depended on it.