by Gary Gach
American Reporter Correspondent
San Francisco, Calif.
September 25, 2001
FROM THE TERROR, TIMELESS PERSONAL LESSONS
SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. -- As the world sorts through the rubble, internal and external, following September 11, I'm beginning to recover my own voice. For a while I was in shock. Frozen, almost. Numb.
Now I realize that personal psychic paralysis was also an aim of the terrorists. So, rather than contribute any opinion about the Big Picture, I am concentrating on personal reponse.
Truth, as poet Sylvia Plath reminds, is white-hot and personal.
A few days before the day our world changed, I'd played emcee for three Afghani-American panelists following a benefit screening of Iara Lee's new documentary film "Beneath the Borqa," and so had a head start on some of the seemingly alien terrain suddenly thrust into mass consciousness, the homeland of my new Afghani friends who long to rebuild their country to its former nobility and beauty.
But even with my briefing on the Taliban and Afghanistan, it was like a chunk of the World Trade Center had fallen right on my head.
Now I can feel myself begin to thaw and let go. As the tide of words rises in my heart again, here are two lessons I know I've learned, arisen in my soul like lotuses blossoming out of muck.
Lesson One, it is okay to be genuinely afraid. To experience and live with one's personal fear.
Am I afraid? You betcha!
This was a terrorist attack. Terror strikes deeper than a bomb. Like a long, thin needle it penetrates right into the human heart.
9/11 (and nine-one-one, the number for calling emergency help) inspires fear in many forms, on many levels. It's probably different for everyone. As for me, I know I was initially terrified to imagine what the horrible attacks must have been like. Then I felt greater fears of what might have happened were the target a nuclear installation.
As my thoughts raced, I tried understanding the murderers. What would compel human beings to commit suicide? To override the universal, instinctual, and tenacious will to live. Further, they lived in America for years, shopped at Wal-Mart, ate pizza, greeted neighbors, yet saw only a nation of Satan, not fellow human beings just like themselves.
This is all quite scary.
And it's natural to confess to feeling fear. Otherwise unrecognized fear turns to blind rage, a spark kindling a fuse of anger initiating cycles of tragic violence. (I admit I am also afraid just to say this, lest I seem unpatriotic. But isn't peace our ultimate agenda?)
Nursing my fear feels like holding a candle in an outdoor vigil among strangers. Whether agreeing or disagreeing, eventually we see the light we all radiate. We help keep each other's candles lit in the wind. Light begets the warmth of fellow feeling.
Staying with my own fear, I can see we're each no different in our suffering, and our aspirations for peace. That moral clarity engenders compassion in me.
It doesn't take the destruction of countless lives to realize this. And still the tragedy remains.
Lesson Two is that it's also ok to admit "I don't know." There's so much that's unknown.
Are we dealing with networks? Or a state? ("Who do we nuke?" "Or if we invade, what's our exit strategy?" "Or do we put them on trial?")
A terrrorist mindset is alien to us. Plus they're hidden. And let's face it: so many Americans know so little of our global village. And our place in it.
And so the slaying on September 15 in Mesa, Ariz., of Balbir Singh Sodhi, who immigrated from India ten years ago, father of three children, might be called a crime of ignorance as well as hatred.
Why? Because the murderer blamed the Sikh man for the terrorist attacks simply for being dark-skinned and wearing a turban like that of Osama bin Laden. (The Sikh religion has its roots closer to Hinduism than Islam.) Mr. Sodhi was slain not by a white supremacist, by the way, but, rather, a Latino.
He drove up in a red pick-up truck to where Mr. Sodhi worked, at a gas station, rolled down his window, and shot him, three times, without leaving his seat, and drove off. This was, alas, the first of now hundreds of hate crimes reported across the U.S.
Terrorism attacks our democratic way of life.
Very scary. No one knows where this will all lead. And it's ok not to know, and to be afraid. And to dwell in the honesty of such recognition.
Only from awareness can we dissolve fear and hatred with compassion. Ignorance with wisdom.
One true thing about our modern era: we are evermore confronted with circumstances about which we can't be certain. That is deeply scary for most. Religion and much of politics have always offered the comfort of certainty and absolutes.
Myself, I am proceeding step by step in my immediate, personal, daily life, which somehow has become public as suddenly "We are all Americans," as one Frenchman put it.
I'm bearing witness to life around me. America's wounds and the waves of suffering flowing from them are very deep. They demand patience and clarity, wisdom and compassion - in my day-to-day life as a citizen, a family member, a neighbor, a workmate, a customer, and so on. Being kind to myself; being kind to others I interact with.
The awesome nobility of New Yorkers, the heroes of Ground Zero, inspires me with many, many instances of the human desire for a better tomorrow amid the very, very worst of human blindness. Amid the evil, if you will, of ignorance.
And I am visiting my local mosque this week. I go to learn more, first-hand, about spiritual practices of my Islamic-American brothers and sisters, aunties and uncles, and to pray in solidarity with their anguish at the betrayal of their faith. (9/11 is a wake-up call on many levels.) Personal matters of daily life might seem trivial and ineffectual, but I cannot find terrorists and bring them to jutice, nor reunite any of the bereaved with the MISSING faces posted on the streets (even in my neighborhood, in San Francisco). But I can take these small mindful steps with all my body, heart, and mind.
I nurture my healing.
Gary Gach is author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Buddhism and editor of What Book!? ~ Buddha Poems from Beat to Hiphop (American Book Award, 1999). He's been weaving a Web site of spiritual responses to 9/11 athttp://awakening.to/peace.html, an online anthology of vows and prayers, multifaith analyses and poetry. He's also author of The Pocket Guide to the Internet (1996) and Writers.net (1997). From 1994-96, he was Arts Editor at Asian Week. He is a contributing writer for The American Reporter, and has published in the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Francisco Examiner, the San Josť Mercury News, and Christian Science Monitor.