9/11: “You weren’t there so you don’t know”

My friend saw the second plane hit. Does that give him a superior view of global politics?

Cary’s classic column  Monday, Sep 20, 2010


Dear Cary,

A good friend of mine, let’s call him Joe, witnessed the second plane hit the building on Sept. 11. He shares his stories about huddling in a building lobby with others as the debris and dust came down around them and shared stories of people crying and praying aloud. Although I consider him a fairly progressive and open-minded person, whenever we discuss terrorism and what I perceive as U.S. international policy that contributes in part to hatred of Americans, he has both an emotional and physical reaction, stiffening up and adamantly claiming that he “understands the issue better than I do because he was there” (although he no longer lives in New York).

He doesn’t want to hear anything about extreme poverty, history of war and religious brainwashing in some countries, he seems to shut down all other perspectives on this matter. He is THE authority.

Once, after what I thought was an interesting, albeit opinionated discussion, he went outside and we heard what can be described as primal screaming. My husband later told me it was Joe letting out his anger of the memory of that day. I felt bad about this for awhile, considering that he might be justified, but I’ll never legitimize my own feelings if I constantly feel one-upped in the “bad stuff that has happened to me” department.

I can never know exactly what Joe experienced that day, but how can I be sympathetic to him and his very real trauma, but also help him understand that we all experienced loss and vulnerability that day? Or am I not justified to think that I have just as much to say and feel than he does? Should I defer to his “superior” judgment and experience? Right now, to keep the peace, I try to avoid the subject. But I can’t help thinking, with the anniversary approaching, there has to be a way to understand each other a little better. After all, isn’t failure to accept other’s beliefs and opinions as perfectly justifiable one of the main reasons we struggle with Mideast relations in the first place?

Justified or Mystified?

 

Dear Justified or Mystified,

Some of us are still raw and will remain raw from the events of 9/11.

Still feeling crushed, traumatized, frightened, we learn to say, Well, you weren’t there, so you can’t possibly know.

When faced with experiences too large to make peace with, we come to partial accommodation the best way we know how.

Let’s let people say what they have to say and let it be as it is.

There are all these people walking around with burdens they need to share, and it’s hard to find someone to talk to about how you feel if the way you feel doesn’t make any sense to you. You find yourself justifying why you feel the way you feel.

So here is an idea. Try going one day without understanding anything. Just let yourself not understand. Don’t bother to understand what you are feeling, or what others are feeling. Just listen and pay attention.

You may find that if you stop trying to understand, the “what” that comes before the “why” becomes more vivid and alive.

This person experienced some things. He may not be skilled in expressing what he experienced. That’s OK.

 

What is real is that something big and traumatic happened, and this person still feels it. It isn’t necessary for us to completely understand it, or “reach a balanced view.” It’s not our problem. It’s what happened to him. You don’t need to try to convince him of this, either. Just let him feel it. He doesn’t need to be told he’s wrong or he’s right. He just needs to be heard.

It’s not for us to quantify and rate the authenticity of each other’s experiences. None of us had any control over where we were on 9/11.

In the writing workshops I lead, we keep what is written in first draft confidential. But I can say that since my birthday is on 9/11, and since 9/11 was a Saturday, and since we have workshops on Saturdays, we had a workshop on Saturday, 9/11, my birthday, and we wrote about 9/11, and I embarrassed myself by what I wrote because I felt that what I wrote was ignoble compared to what others wrote.

The thing about having confidentiality and a “safe space” to write in is that you can give voice to your own ignoble voices. Being able to give voice to ignoble voices is important if you write drama, because you must get inside the heads of the unprepossessing and ignoble souls who often function as villains in dramatic writing. So this is useful. Still, one is not immune from personal embarrassment. So without getting into detail, I can say that I let my ignoble self rant on about 9/11 while others wrote with great depth, passion and balance, and afterward, for a moment there, I felt as though I had trampled on something sacred.

This was a real feeling.

I also feel, perhaps sacrilegiously, that it is a good thing to trample on sacred things every now and then, just to stay in practice, and that letting others trample on what I consider sacred reminds me that what I consider sacred is just an idea. It reminds me that symbols are not truths. It reminds me that you do not have to understand my thoughts. They are just my thoughts. That is a good thing to remember.

Having ignoble thoughts does not make an individual ignoble. We all have a multitude of voices and attitudes. Some are noble and some are not.

I cherish the workshops, where we give voice to unapproved emotions without apology. We learn to hear. We learn to sit and hear. We hear others and we hear ourselves.

It takes sophistication to feel intensely but remain detached. We sometimes mistake intensity of feeling for soundness of opinion. They are not the same thing.

We just want people to acknowledge what we feel. We want people to acknowledge the deep, smoking and ruinous hole 9/11 left in our spirits.

It is like a holy experience.

I wonder if I am not now on shaky ground, thinking of it as holy.

I am always on shaky ground. Shaky ground is the only kind of ground there is.

We were affected in ways we do not control or understand.

We look for ways to appear in control. We don’t want to appear weak: You weren’t there so you can’t possibly know.

That’s true. We can’t possibly know. We can’t know what it’s like to be somebody else. We can’t feel what he feels. We can only listen.