Can Ground Zero be Transformative?

Robert V. Taylor

Robert V. Taylor

President Obama has missed an opportunity at Ground Zero. Beyond the pathos of his visit is an invitation beyond the cheap closure he talks about. Is it possible that Ground Zero invites transformation from fear into freedom for compassion; transformation into a new common humanity?

ABC News correctly identifies the “flurry of emotions” around the Ground Zero meeting.  The loss suffered by the families of those killed in the attacks of 9/11 is real. Our emotions are engaged in surprising, unexpected ways in the years following loss of any kind. The talk about bringing closure makes the President sounds like our Therapist in Chief. There is never closure about any significant loss or abuse because the reality of loss never disappears. Instead the process invites learning that is transformative.

The President is missing the opportunity to be a transformative leader on this one. It is we who are each accountable and responsible for the transformative work that leads to new insights beyond grief and loss. The President can set a tone but he cannot do that work for us any more than a therapist or friend can.

The events of 9/11 have marked the national and personal psyche of many of us with two powerful forces – fear and righteousness.  Both keep us from our truest selves.

In November of 2001 I was privileged to spend time on the secure site of Ground Zero. Two images from that place of devastation speak to being transformed from fear and righteousness into life-giving responses.

The first is of body parts discovered among the rubble. Each time this happened the rescue workers halted their excavations and silence enfolded the site. The reverence for the dead and those who loved them was arresting. People from over 90 nations were killed in the attacks of 9/11 and they included people from many spiritual traditions or none at all. The reverence knew no boundaries.

Fear paralyzes us and creates a paradigm for viewing the world as a battleground between whatever construct we create of “us” and “them. The first victim of fear is usually truth – our own fears separate us from the larger human story we are part of. We then choose to imprison ourselves behind an enclosure. In the moment we do that we give power to those who use fear to stoke division, hatred and mistrust among people, nations and spiritual traditions. We become victims.

Every time we say “I beg to differ” with fear we spread the light of a candle on the murky shadows of fear. When we live in fear we give victory to those who keep us from hope and compassion. The fears represented by 9/11 do not invite us to be mushy about security or stopping terror. But they do invite the transformation of stepping beyond our enclosures into life-giving actions of compassion and hope.

St. Paul's Chapel NYC adorned with messages of hope

The second image came from the historic St. Paul’s Chapel adjacent to Ground Zero. This church where George Washington was inaugurated as President was transformed from a place of religious services into a respite center for the workers at Ground Zero. Food from New York City restaurant kitchens, cots to nap on and massage services for stressed workers were all freely offered. The balcony and pillars were adorned with hand drawn and heart-filled posters from around the world.

Instead of righteous anger or litmus tests for those who entered its doors it was a nerve center of the compassion and care that we are made for. It knew no boundaries for the religious traditions or country of origin of the workers or those killed. No one person’s suffering, trauma, grief or need was more righteous or compelling than that of another. No group of people was scapegoated. Each was real, each was honored.

We often think of the extraordinary generosity and hospitality of Americans. It is legendary. Is it simply a different expression of the same human generosity and hospitality that many of us experience across the globe?

Transformation begins when we make understand and befriend our fears and righteousness. Instead of enclosing us they invite us to understand and enter into those same reactions experienced by any person who has experienced violent loss, terror, abuse or inconsolable grief.

Transformation moves to its own rhythm in the dance of our lives. It is always inviting us in. We can choose to be transformed by the very experiences that change or upend life as we know or imagine it. Each of us can choose to be participants in saying “I beg to differ” with the imprisonment that fear and righteousness brings. This is waking up to being our truest selves – compassionate and at one with others. Is it worth the journey and the work to you?

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  1. Thanks for this! I’ve been blogging this week on “The Myth of Closure”, a word one 9/11 family member said should be stricken from the English language. I don’t blame President Obama. I think most people look at closure as an opportunity to find peace. They mean well (which is code for “you have no idea what you’re talking about”).

  2. Thanks Victoria – I think you’re right! It’s a way of trying to make sense

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