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Infamous Dates | A Personal Reflection on 9/11

*I invite you to share your remembrances of any infamous date under “Leave a Reply.”

Mind numbing transformations of life and ways of living occur in the briefest and most unexpected of moments. . . .

– The December 7, 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, that prompted President Franklin D Roosevelt’s December 8th “Day of Infamy” speech.

– The December 26, 2004 southeast Asian tsunami, that took the lives of more than 250,000 people.

Between these two dates and events too many unconscionable natural and human-on-human atrocities including, of course, September 11, 2001, when at least and especially for North Americans, the world suddenly seemed too bleak and too frightening a place to galavant (roaming and playing) about in after 19 terrorists affiliated with al-Qaeda commandeered four planes.

Two months prior, July, 2001, I was studying and traveling about in Switzerland and Germany as part of my PhD studies in history of religions. Coincidentally, and perhaps ironically given the ensuing Islamophobia that developed in the United States post-9/11, one of the seminars I attended that July at the Ecumenical Institute at Bossey was on reconciliation.

Like many, I remember where and what I was doing the morning of 9/11.

A new academic year had begun just one week prior, and because my doctoral mentor was undergoing leukemia treatment, he had traveled to Houston’s renowned “cancer hospital,” MD Anderson. I taught his 08:00 – 09:20 Introduction to World Religions class, and we were half-way through the 80-minutes when a student, who I had marked as absent, suddenly opened one of the two rear classroom doors.

Distraught and crying she told us of the planes, the Towers, the unknown number dead, and that she had a sister who worked in one of the towers, but who she discovered was safe. I immediately dismissed class without comprehending the magnitude or severity of events, nor with any sense of the implications of the day’s events on the next day, or the many tomorrows that extended into months, years, and now into a second decade.

All over campus students, staff and faculty gravitated toward each other and to TV’s. I still remember the density of people congregating around two large screen TV’s in Baylor University’s SUB (Student Union Building). There was an uncharacteristic hush throughout the SUB, except for the voices of the news anchors, analysts and political pundits.

Equally, if not more unsettling to me, was September 12th, because for the first time in (my) living memory not a single aircraft was heard or seen in the sky. Even birds in flight seemed an anomaly.

I’m ashamed to say, but it was only after sitting down to draft this blog, and with my mind unconsciously racing here, there and everywhere in its search for associated memories, that I became mindful, re-minded of other equally or greater calamitous events to 9/11, in terms of loss of life – genocides like the Holocaust, Cambodia and Rwanda; the World Wars – hell, most wars; colonization of countries and their people; civil wars like Syria; et cetera. My shame demonstrates how myopic, how forgetful, how self-absorbed, and how provincial our lives can become, and why memorials are so important.

911memotial

I’m not suggesting one calamitous event is worse or less worse than another, for they surely are equally tragic for those who lost and lose loved ones and friends.

For those personally untouched (no friend or family member affected) with each colossal tragedy – apart from the added life inconveniences “suffered” as a result of an event – perhaps it’s a reminder, a wake-up call that we should live lives more daily attuned to our fellow humanity. Truly, no person or nation is an island.

This morning I heard a woman talking on her cell phone to a friend, explaining with a degree of frustration why her upcoming weekend plans were changed – stating, “it’s because of some kind of Jewish holiday.” Obviously she was referring to Yom Kippur, only the holiest of Jewish days in which repentance and atonement accompanies a full-day of fasting, yet which this lady had no knowledge of, or interest in, because she likely had no Jewish friends or acquaintances.

Our own life is difficult enough, I realize. But, perhaps, if we took small, daily measures like being willing and disciplined enough to wean ourselves from total co-dependency on our smart devices like Charlene deGuzman accidentally did one 24-hour period in I Forgot My Phone – a humorous YouTube clip that has garnered more than 22-million hits.

Maybe then we might discover enough time, energy and empathy to give thoughtful pause, prayer (if you’re a person of faith) or praxis (thoughtful action) toward the lives and suffering of so many of the world’s people – individuals with a history and a family, just like the more than 3,000, who lost their lives in New York City on 9/11. Perhaps, too, such moments of reflection would help orient our lives and living in a direction that encompasses and embraces the world and not merely my own private world.

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Filed under Africa, Diversity, Life, Loss, Memories, Mentor, Perspective, Relationships, Religion and Faith

The Positive Power of Difference | Us + Them

I remember the wall that encased my third grade home in Kenya.  It was quarried rock, thinly plastered with cement, and as a security measure, injected along the top with jagged, multi-colored shards of glass.  I was sitting atop that wall one day (at a point void of glass!) when my family’s first of two pet Vervet monkeys, Penny, decided to join me, and then out of sheer pleasure at the prospect of terrorizing a young boy, bit my arm.  I screamed more in fear than pain, and shoved her off the 6 to 8 foot wall.

Glass as Crime Deterent

Glass as a crime deterrent

Aware that neighborhood, community and nation are rapidly changing toward a kaleidoscope of racial, ethnic, cultural and linguistic hues – and interspersed with varied degrees of crime – it’s easy and enticing to buy into the myth, marketing and politicking, which advocates that people and nations are predetermined to be in perpetual conflict and hostility with each other.

Such thought and argument utilizes fear of the unknown and different to persuade us that the best defense and antidote against inevitable change and conflict is an impenetrable barrier – or, as former Republican presidential candidates Herman Cain and Michele Bachman suggested – either an electrified fence or one that stretches the entire length of the Mexico/U.S. border.

A not uncommon residential security - Durban

A not uncommon residential security – Durban

It’s a modern-day circling the wagons scenario.  Confronted by a perceived or real threat, we erect barriers  to protect self, family and assets.  Sadly, we disregard the inevitable and historical fact that we are building nothing more lasting than structures of sand, which will not last beyond a spring tide of social discontent. Look no further for evidence than the Berlin Wall or France and the storming of the Bastille.

1989 - Fall of Berlin Wall

Fall of Berlin Wall, 1989

Walls are physical structures, yes, but they are also symbolic.  China’s Great Wall was built as a northern barrier against the threatening barbarian Huns.  Andrew Sinclair, however, noted that walls suggest “a mentality which still persists—the view of a world in which the limits between the civilized and the barbarian are exact and impassable.”  Today we might revise this “wall mentality” to express our longing for an impenetrable divide that guarantees personal protection.

Great Wall of China

Great Wall of China

What precipitated my thinking about walls and barriers, you ask?

Two things.

First, midpoint on my daily run are two separately owned houses for sale.  A distinctive of these two residences has been a shared, unpartitioned backyard.  What is now distinctive is that prior to sale, a high, dividing fence is being constructed that will effectively restrict one new homeowner’s access to the formerly shared swimming pool, as well as minimize social interaction.

The second precipitating factor? My own long-held thoughts on difference, well enunciated by Todd Pittinsky and his book Us + Them: Tapping the Positive Power of Difference.

I frequently voice – particularly post-senseless acts of mass violence – that despite their unconscionable and numbing reality, given a burgeoning global population and people’s access to firearms, as well as the pervasiveness of mental illness and socio-economic disparities, it’s a miracle many times more random acts of violence don’t occur.

It seems we individually, as societies, and “the media” conveniently overlook and under-report the positive dimensions of stories (the many examples of how people positively and daily relate to one another), focusing instead on telling and showing the macabre because that is what sells and excites social consciousness.

As Pittinsky observes, “We are letting the worst of the news become our underlying picture of us-and-them relations.  We know the negative power of difference very well, but we are barely acquainted with the positive power of difference.”

South African educators (+me) working together to improve kids lives.

South African educators (+me) working together to improve kids lives.

This is exactly Pittinsky’s point.  Since the Holocaust and extending into the Civil Rights era, social science research has singularly focused on the negative – on hate and negative prejudice type studies.  Positive research and reporting on “liking of the other” (which he calls allophilia) is largely excluded.

Social sciences’ singular and myopic research on causes of and ways to eliminate or minimize the negative (hate/prejudice) has over the decades thoroughly and negatively saturated and shaped society at large (via education), especially government, military, business, education and civic leaders’ perceptions, attitudes, and responses to difference and “them.”

This overwhelming negative outlook has adversely affected societies at large because leaders and groups views of and approaches to difference and “the other” reflect an “us versus them” or an “us against them,” and seldom, if ever, a positive science of “us and them” or an “us plus them.”

Us + Them

Us + Them

There’s something wrong, Pittinsky notes, when all focus, effort, and expenditure is on tracking “hate back through generations while overlooking positive attitudes and actions that happen today, never mind seeking their distant roots or long-term effects.”

Take Africa for example.  Western coverage of the continent is dominated by news of genocide, dictatorial atrocities, and ethnic massacres.  Yet, Africa has an “estimated 2,035 linguistic groups and more than 3,000 ethnic groups.  It is not uncommon to find more than 20 ethnic groups in one country.  And yet, at any given moment, most Africans are not hating or fighting.  Why not?  We really don’t know.  It’s mostly the hate we study.”

In researching his book, Pittinsky found more than 200 published measures of hate and negative prejudice toward “the other” group, yet not a single measuring tool for constructing positive attitudes toward “the other.”

The Core of the Problem

The Core of the Problem

North Americans have at least two significant challenges ahead of us.  First, as Harvard’s Diana Eck states, “Simply open our eyes.  Discover America anew, and explore the many ways in which the new immigration has changed the religious (and cultural) landscape of our cities and towns, our neighborhoods and schools.

Secondly, strive to maintain our nation’s e pluribus unum (out of the many, one), given the twin facts that we’re the most religiously diverse nation in the world, yet also the most religiously (and culturally) illiterate.

religion-dm-500

Our economic prosperity, global dominance and geographical size has in the past minimized our “need” to initiate relationships or understanding of difference with the “other.”

Like South Africa, the United States is a rainbow nation of diversity and multiple cultures.  We need to discard/unlearn any and all notions that suggest people and nations are predestined and hard-wired for conflict and hostility, as Samuel Huntington’s popular book title suggests, The Clash of Civilizations.  For the passionately religious minded, this will require, in part, a cessation of bearing false witness against those different from oneself.

All it takes to begin reversing the centuries’-long cultural and religious ingrained notion that hostility and conflict are immutable aspects of our created differences, is to risk sharing in what Eck describes as “the common tasks of our civil society.”

If that is too risky or demanding a task, then share a cup of hot tea/coffee and a conversation with “the other” about shared memories of life and loss, perhaps during what Elizabeth Lesser calls, “Take ‘the other’ to lunch.” It would help communicate across cultural, political, economic and social divides, if you took along a few personal photographs to share, too.

We all, yet leaders, in particular, “Have the responsibility to understand and increase what we want (peaceful and productive multicultural societies), not just to understand and decrease what we don’t want (prejudice and hate).”

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