Marking an Anniversary with Honesty

All day I have felt depressed and have lacked motivation. I’ve accomplished most of my chores on this, my day off, but it has taken me three times as long and has required plenty of breaks for some mindless tv watching. There are plenty of other ways I should have spent that extra time but I just didn’t have it in me today.

Derek came home after his last class to change clothes before going to football practice. I asked him how he was doing and he said he had felt off all day, like something wasn’t quite right. I shared with him that I had felt the same all day. He listed the various things that had bothered him today and then he offhandedly said, “And tomorrow’s 9/11.”

It took him saying it for me to realize why I have felt lousy all day. Even now, the kids are in the living room with me, wanting my attention for math homework and to share articles in the magazine they are reading, but I don’t have the heart to give them much of my attention. I’m trying hard to give them my patience. It’s not their fault I’m in a foul mood or that I dread this anniversary every year. It’s merely a typical Monday evening for them.

I can’t claim that the anniversary has somehow snuck up on me. People started talking about it well over a week ago and I agreed to say a few words about 9/11 to my middle school students tomorrow during their convocation. But I had boxed up the emotions of the anniversary and set them on a shelf, willfully denying they would have any effect on me this year.

And yet, here I sit, the night before the anniversary and I am all kinds of sideways. I’m cranky and feel like crying. I have a deep sense of isolation. I want to vent my depression, frustration, and memories but there’s no one to call or text who understands and Derek has dorm duty tonight, putting him in the dorms until well after 11. I pray I’ll be sound asleep by then and away from these feelings.

Tomorrow I’ll share some of my story of living in New York City on 9/11. I volunteered to be available to the teachers to talk to the kids because I want to help them understand what it’s like to live through an event like that. But now, I’m regretting telling anyone, much less volunteering. I rarely tell people that I was in the city on that day because it feels like a strange sort of bragging and I don’t want to have to answer too many questions. But I also feel the burden of responsibility because I know people are interested and need to know.

So, this evening, I sit in our living room with the kids chattering around me and I feel nauseous. Deep in my belly is a sense of foreboding and dread. Thankfully, I don’t have to turn on the television tomorrow and I can choose not to read the news. Every channel will rush to cover the anniversary, their particular focus will be in the service of using the events of 9/11 to further their agenda. The abuse of the memory of that day brings an acrid taste to my mouth as my stomach roils with disgust. I have to brace myself for the annual sentimentalization and politicization of the 9/11 tragedy.

I also live with the shame of leaving. A few days after the terrorists ripped a hole in our city, I left for home and didn’t look back. I had been planning on leaving after the first of the year but the discomfort and dis-ease that filled the city hastened my departure. My parents, in their love and concern for their baby girl, drove all night to meet me in New Jersey when I told them I wanted to come home.

The summer leading up to 9/11, I had worked as a hospital chaplain and been part of a peer group to do the challenging work of self-exploration. It had been a wonderful yet exhausting summer full of deep dives into my identity and personality. I returned to seminary with no reserves, nothing left to give anyone who may need me. Once the planes hit the twin towers and the city froze in terror, I knew I would have to leave for my own wellbeing. I had nothing to give any effort to help minister to a city in need.

Even though I did what I had to for my own wellness and health, I still carry the guilt and shame of a person who left when there was trouble. I lost relationships and friendships were broken. I became someone that they used to know. Others were weakened to the point that today we only exist in each other’s lives as online acquaintances. I left because I had to, it was my first act of self-care and taught me a valuable lesson that has saved me from burnout and emotional exhaustion as a minister. But, in leaving, I also became a deserter. I abandoned my community and nothing will change that.

It’s been seventeen years but the wound isn’t healed. Every year, it gets a little better, though some years hit me harder than others. The saccharine remembrances and anniversary specials knock the scab off and, for twenty-four hours or so, I’m left to fester, again.

There is nothing redeeming about 9/11 for me. I’m broken hearted that people would board planes with the sole purpose of bringing them down to destroy as many lives as possible. I’m broken hearted by the decades of events that preceded and caused the 9/11 tragedy, for the ways our country and the world failed to look after one another as a community because of our xenophobia and fear. I’m broken hearted by the ways the events of that day are twisted by some false sense of sanctity that wreaks of sanctimoniousness and artificial sentimentalism. I’m broken hearted that we don’t seem to learn our lessons and tragedies like 9/11 are happening around our world all the time but we don’t seem to care because the violence is perpetrated against black and brown people in neighborhoods and countries too insignificant to garner our attention.

I share this confession because I believe we all need to do a better job sharing with one another when we’re not at our best. We need to see each other at our weakest moments, not just when we’re thriving. I share with you because you are friends and you are family, you are brothers and sisters who suffer from the same human condition and I need you to know that I hurt as well. We are never alone in our pain, which I am reminding myself of now, even as I sit in my sense of isolation thanks to the burden of my memories.

I share because I want you to have a reference point when you slip into your own times of alienation or pain. My reference point is the cross. I know I’m never alone in moments like these because there’s nothing I can suffer that Christ hasn’t already. He waits for us wherever we go, even in the deepest recesses of our minds and at the end of our roads of denial. And he has excellent company, a communion of saints who are our brothers and sisters, everyone who has ever sat with this same sense of foreboding and nausea. We never journey a path that someone hasn’t already traveled.

By now, my kids have finished their work and have migrated downstairs. I hear their shouts from the basement as they challenge each other in their video games. Only the dog is left to occupy this space with me and she demands nothing but my presence. My kids don’t have a sense for what I’m feeling or why. But someday, they will. They will survive their own 9/11s and, when they do, I hope they can remember their mother survived something similar.

Friends, lift a prayer of remembrance; lift a prayer for broken hearts; lift a prayer for lost lives and lost opportunities; lift a prayer of confession for our continued failings; lift a prayer that we can honor without trivializing or abusing our collective memory; and lift a prayer of hope that our world can be reformed, that we can set aside our evil and nasty ways in favor of a way of being that shows real concern and love for one another.

Hoping for all of you that your 9/11 be one of reflection, introspection, prayer, and peace.

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