Those of us who were alive on November 22, 1963, remember exactly where we were and what we were doing upon hearing President Kennedy was assassinated. After 9/11, the same is true for virtually all of us, even those who were seven years old, when the Twin Towers toppled 10 years ago.
That day is seared into the memories and collective consciousness of our entire society. A war began, and it is still being conducted today. It appears as though it will continue into an endless future, as long as “they” keep coming at “us,” bent on the destruction of our way of life.
These past 10 years have not been terribly kind to us. Each day, it’s becoming clearer that the sun is setting on our American empire. Overseas wars sap our wealth and vitality. The venal mindset that unbridled capitalism has no limits and should not be governed, controlled or regulated is now mainstream. It has produced a disaster for the vast majority of our citizens, with 90 percent of the country’s wealth in the hands of 1 percent of the population — a recipe for economic depression. Most insidiously, the citizenry is kept in line by the withholding of information, the spread of misinformation and the fear mongering of a corrupted political class eager to maintain its hold over our thinking and behavior. Life in our society is speeding up, and our self-destruction is nurtured by reinforcing the worst impulses of human nature — selfishness, objectification of “the other” and unchecked greed. The big picture looks pretty grim.
Let’s thank our lucky stars for the little picture. It looks much better and reinforces my own sense of optimism that kindness and compassion will one day prevail in the human spirit and overcome the all-pervasive negative impulses governing human behavior and the organization of societies. Our redemption as individuals and as a species arises from the small acts of decency we manifest on a daily basis toward those in distress. We humans ennoble ourselves every time we selflessly reach out to a friend or stranger and offer a caring smile or a helping hand. We grow more human when we stretch beyond our comfort zones and make ourselves available as servants to the situation rather than our own self-interest.
The past 10 years of our collective life have led me to the conclusion that young minds need to learn how to calm down and be more attentive to things as they actually are. Wherever I turn and whomever I ask — students, faculty or staff — nearly everyone reports how difficult it is for the younger generation to focus and concentrate for sustained periods of time, how scattered they feel and how much fear and anxiety with which they live. This is a condition of the post-9/11 culture we live in today.
We need to stop trying to bend reality to look the way we wish it to be because the truth is that reality doesn’t bend to conform to anyone’s wishes or ideology. We’ll do better as a species if we internalize this simple fact. It’s time we took a long look in the mirror of self-awareness — it might come as a shock, but we do need to learn that we are our own worst enemy. We spend our creative capacities developing ever-more efficient ways to destroy one another while ignoring the decay of infrastructure, the erosion of a middle class that is the backbone of any progressive human society and the degradation of our planetary life support system. If we fail, it won’t be because of al-Qaida. It will happen because of what we are allowing ourselves to become.
Michael Faber is the Jewish chaplain of Muller Chapel. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org