I can still remember the day when the dominant American ethos was exposed as false.
That day was September 11, 2001.
I remember exactly where I was on that day. As usual, that morning I stumbled into my political science class, knowing that I had around twenty more minutes to wake up because each class period began by watching the news so that we could discuss current events.
As we turned on the news we saw the first tower in flames. As we were watching, the second plane collided with the second tower. Shock, uncertainty, and raw emotion electrified the room. I remember the visceral pain of students who had relatives working at the World Trade Center. I recall coming home and sobbing with my mom on the floor as we watched bodies tumbling from upper floors as people sought to escape the flames. I remember debilitating grief at the unexpected loss of life, thinking about all of the families who had lost husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, and children… and a supernatural love for these complete strangers welled up in me.
I also remember the amazing heroism of police officers and firefighters, many of whom gave up their lives to rescue and save others. I remember a country coming together in uncanny unity, rallying around our hurting brothers and sisters. I remember the dedication of teachers, parents, pastors, and politicians who sought to walk with those in their care through the tragedy. I remember the supernatural effort of doctors and nurses who pushed themselves beyond the limits of human exhaustion to save as many lives as they could.
Which ethos was exposed as false on that day?
That life is better when we are all strong, independent, and individualistically pursuing our freedoms, rights, and privileges to their maximum personal benefit.
Embedded within that ethos is a definition of weakness as impotence, ineffectiveness, deficiency, defective, and worthless, i.e. worthy of rejection and abandonment and something that must be avoided at all costs.
As a result of this subtext to our cultural ethos, in the words of Henry David Thoreau, “Most people lead lives of quiet desperation and go to grave with the song still in them.” Many of us lead solitary lives in community, internally plagued with deep loneliness. We desperately exhaust all of our energy to maintain the thin and illusory veneer of strength, confidence, and competence. We desperately yearn for intimate relationships in which we can be vulnerable and received with grace despite all of our flaws and imperfections….yet our fear of weakness inhibits us.
Yet on fateful days like September 11th, 2001, our bubble is popped. Almost as if waking up from a long slumber we suddenly realize that perhaps we are not as strong as we think, and that we desperately need one another.
On that day, I believe that God revealed a timeless truth. Our shared humanity brought us together; the needs and vulnerabilities that were exposed through such a tragic moment became the birthplace of sublime unity, where contentions and division were set aside and momentarily we became a true and loving community. This happened so pervasively that in my opinion, we caught a glimpse of God’s intentions for humanity.
On that day, the culturally embedded definition of weakness was abandoned in favor of weakness as a tangible expression of the common needs and vulnerabilities of humanity in a fallen world and the birthplace of profound unity and communal strength. This vision of weakness effectually becomes the rallying cry of love.
What we encountered on that day was a globally visible tableau of what we experience on a smaller scale in our personal lives.
How many of us have encountered profound outpourings of love and support in moments of crisis? In those moments we also embrace God’s vision for weakness as we express our appreciation and love for one another in transparently vulnerable ways. And yet, these outpourings fade and our lives slowly slip back into the American way. We buy into the delusion of strength, independence, and rugged individualism once again….until the next crisis arises.
What if we didn’t wait until the next crisis to be reminded of the truth that we are not strong and that we desperately need one another? What would happen if we laid down the masks and unveiled ourselves in weakness to one another? What could be accomplished if all the energy that is necessary to maintain those walls were diverted into the act of loving one another whole-heartedly?