Thinking Aloud: Nine-Eleven and the Underside of Truth

thinking aloud

By David Lieberman

In the months following the attacks on the Twin Towers, most Americans felt that something momentous had occurred in our country. Time proclaimed in October that we were experiencing an awakening in America. And we were. Accompanying the shock, grief, and anger was a profound sense of our vulnerability. Through that experience of vulnerability, many of us opened to a more vivid awareness of life around us, becoming more connected to each other and to the world. Even in traffic, people seemed kinder to each other. Across the country, our hearts went out to the victims of the attack as well as to those suffering in other parts of the world. We displayed more compassion for each other, and for others in the world, than we had shown in a long time.

Our actions expressed our new awakening. During the fall, our society’s day-to-day focus shifted awayfrom the frenzy of spending and entertainment. People stayed closer to home, enjoying simpler pleasures. We became more serious, clearer about our priorities, more aware of our connection to those around us.

One year later, we are once again largely preoccupied with the million little details of getting byand getting ahead. Shopping and entertainment have rebounded. But does the change that we experienced so deeply live on inside us? Or have we turned back to our pre-9-11 way of life? Or is something more subtle and complicated going on?

Clearly, we’ve moved out of our post-9-11 idealistic phase. Yet we haven’t shifted back to our old attitudes, either. Rather, many of us remain loyal to the picture of the world animated by compassion and connection that 9-11 brought us. But while we still accept and admire that vision, we aren’t living it. Our sense of connectedness, now clearly out of synche with the helter-skelter atmosphere of our workaday surroundings, is turning into a warm sentiment that we resolutely honor without any longer asking it to be real.

Actually, we were also in this position of being neither exactly connected nor disconnected in the fall of 2001, though most of us didn’t feel it that way at the time. Here’s what happened.

When the Twin Towers were attacked, each of us felt personally vulnerable—sensitized to the precariousness of our own lives—just as we do in the face of any emergency: sickness, loss of a job, death of a loved one. Yet this once, we faced a threat jointly with everyone else in the country. It was because we shared this vulnerability that our country, and to some extent our world, became common ground. In that sudden, new orientation, the disconnectedness that we usually feel seemed to become annulled. We saw each other as we hadn’t before.

However, in most areas of our lives, we each continued, even then, to go about our daily businessapart from the rest of society. The commonality we felt didn’t actually go beyond the specific arenaof tragedy and threat.

Still, it felt like it did. In retrospect, what we felt, beyond the sharing of a single calamity, was not actually a true commonality and connectedness. It was a moral imperative, a powerfully felt “ought to be,” a promise (rather than an experience) of the world returned to its wholesome state. We had made contact with the spiritual template that gives the world its deepest meaning. But we did not fully live it. Today, we still sense that deep spiritual connectedness off in the distance, but it remains an unfulfilled dream rather than a common experience.

What would satisfy us most deeply and stably is a connectedness that resides naturally in daily life, rather than a connectedness that we’re shocked into by some extraordinary event. Yet as we have moved through the past several decades, we have either mistakenly believed that we already have that connection (as we did in the fall of 2001) or we have forgotten that such a possibility exists (as we did in the me-first decades of the 1980s and 1990s). At no time, however, have we faced the situation squarely: we do not have the thing we most deeply want.

The spirit of connectedness we felt in the aftermath of the 9-11 attacks was undeniably real. But tocontinue to honor that spirit as the regime of daily life drifts in again is not so easy. On the other hand, it is just as difficult to attempt to somehow put 9-11 behind us and return to our old lives of focused self-interest. What can we do?

We can recalibrate our way of seeing. The two conditions, an immediate disconnectedness in our surroundings and a deeper promise of connection, are both always present, one more obvious than the other at any given time. What we must do is learn to see the underside of truth, disconnectedness in times of connection, connectedness in times of disconnection. In our present circumstances, as the tumult of daily life is again coming to monopolize our senses, we need to cultivate the ability to perceive our deeper commonality right within our disconnected milieu.

Amid the whizzing of cars, the whir of the Internet, the rush to make a sale, and the calculated smiles all of us don in our workaday roles, the truth of our connectedness is everywhere, but it is easy to miss. That is because it is not something we can point to and name. Rather it’s sensed. We notice it as we pull back from the self-seriousness of our daily maneuvering to simply see ourselves and each other posing—in our roles, moves, and strategic intentions—rather than being those poses.

Seeing in this way is the means to grasp how things ought to be, even amid the surface appearances.This is what is required to fully take in the double nature of our social reality, to register society’sunderlying promise, the promise glimpsed briefly through the tragedy of 9-11, as the workaday world’s disconnectedness comes to dominate our awareness once again. It is a prescription for truly getting on with our lives.



David Lieberman lives in Minneapolis, where he writes essays and memoirs. He is currently completing a book that examines changes in American values since the 1950s.


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