What matters most?” is a question for perpetual reflection and revision—unless, of course, one is facing imminent death. “Who am I?” and “Where am I headed?”—questions I posed philosophically in this space just two months ago—suddenly have a ring of practicality, if not urgency, about them. Ever since Sept. 11, I cannot rid my mind of the image of so many people knowing they were about to die in a matter of moments. What are we to do with these images? How can one process in an efficacious way the perceived transformation of life as we know it to life as precipitously short? Are we different now? Should we be?
We fear an unexpected, unprepared-for death—being blindsided by it. But its horror pales next to the prospect of seeing death hurtle toward you and having a few moments to prepare. I know that I will die. The difficult part is not knowing when. Or is it? To face and face down our fear of death is a dread assignment, indeed, one that most of us are able to forestall indefinitely. Not so the thousands of victims on that fateful morning.
Their radical and short-lived awareness of their own mortality casts a new light on our own mundane plight as we go through life without knowing when the end will come. But even as we have to go on with the quotidian routine and concerns, I can’t stop wondering what sadness, what regret may have haunted each victim’s final moment of consciousness. For most of us for most of our lives, our own death is distant and abstract. But when the distance between dying and living suddenly closes and their stark opposition blurs, what do we see? According to the English poet John Keats, who poignantly and painfully contemplated his own premature death, “Nothing ever becomes real till it is experienced.” The question is, How real can, or should, death be for us as we go about the business of recovering from this tragedy?
Sept. 11 was like a national near-death experience. What does it make of us? What does consideration of my own death stir in me? Every one of us is moribund. Our living is by nature a slow dying. As the narrator in Jim Crace’s novel Being Dead, puts it, “Our births are just the gateway to our deaths.” A gateway is a passage, a means of entrance or exit, rather than an end in itself. This distinction captures the paradox of this moment in our nation’s life. We’ve been roused from our slumber into a state of high alert and high dudgeon, spurred to flex our muscles and exert our might. In the same breath we’ve been made to feel immensely vulnerable, and have needed to call upon our reserves, in every sense of the word.
The United States is like a man fighting against the realization that he’s reached middle age, that no matter how much he tries to deny it, the fact is he’s no longer young and invincible. He had never doubted that he was different from other guys, stronger, fitter, healthier, more committed to the teeming vigor of his active lifestyle, physically indestructible and justifiably more oblivious to his own mortality. Then one day he’s felled by injury and by a crushing self-recognition: he’s just like everyone else.
One’s senescence, like tragedy, can be crippling and it can be liberating, but it can never be ignored. We keep hearing and reading that since Sept. 11, “we live in a different world” and “everything has changed.” But do we, and has it? In the immediate aftermath, we’ve hastily substituted one perception of ourselves for another. And so, while retaliation and revenge may be necessary and bring some measure of satisfaction, they are not the keystone of our rebuilding and recovery.
Truly to recover would require embracing measures far more radical than an international manhunt and armed air marshals. It seems to me that full recovery from what has happened demands a kind of national soul-searching and disinterested re-evaluation of our culture and its impact on the rest of the world. Growing older occurs naturally; growing wiser does not.
It is a truism that one is most vulnerable when most powerful: when one has the most to lose and one’s adversary, having nothing worldly to lose, welcomes death. In our culture death is the enemy, and suffering is not considered necessary to a meaningful life. Now what has overtaken us is the unaccustomed in-betweenness of living with death, of living as dying. The challenge before us as a people, like the challenge before us as created beings, is our own contingency: we are not in control. To be whole and sane, our mortality must be kept at a reasonable distance, neither out of sight nor constantly in sharp focus, neither an imponderable nor an immediate reality. Turning death into life is God’s job; ours is merely to accept living and dying as coequals.