On 9/11, Death, and the Crippling Effects of Fear

We were afraid of things before 9/11.

What happened over a handful of hours that Tuesday morning sixteen years ago did not suddenly render the citizenry of the United States of America apprehensive or fearful. We had things to be afraid of back then. Like natural disasters, school shootings, the rise of gangsta rap…

But what happened on 9/11 was not an “it-just-got-real” kind of awakening to global terrorism, or even the unsettling feeling that America was more vulnerable than we had long assumed. It was actually far more subtle a change than these. What happened was a shift in a basic narrative about our own existence, both as a nation as well as individuals. We did not simply learn new fear.

We learned dread.

The World of Dread

One of the main effects of the 9/11 attacks was how unexpected they were – how utterly blindsided they made the vast majority of us feel. None of us – save for conspiracy theorists and maybe a few people in Langley, Virginia – woke up that morning on high alert. Our eyes weren’t already nervously glued to cable news (which, yes, was alive and kicking even back then) for the latest updates out of the Middle East or North Korea. Most folks on the West Coast weren’t even awake at all when the world started caving in.

My own morning began as mundanely as any of that year. Rising with the alarm clock at the crack of dawn to shower and dress up nicer than I had been used to throughout my college career in order to look as professional as a twenty-one-year-old can look to the student body of San Marcos High School in San Marcos, Texas, where I was less than a month into my student teaching semester, and my final sprint to the finish line of graduation. By the time I walked in the classroom, the radio was already reporting that a small, private plane had crashed into the side of the North Tower. Another hour and two additional crashes later, I was standing in the hallway of the school trying to call my father on a cell phone that weighed heavier than the laptop I’m currently writing this on. I knew he had been set to board an American Airlines flight from Miami to Dallas that morning, and the breaking news reports – which we mostly kept muted on the classroom TV – were still speculating that the hijacked flights could have originated from as far away as Miami. It was another couple of hours before I finally heard his voice on the other end of a scratchy cell connection, assuring me he was fine, not to worry, just going to be stuck in south Florida for a few more days. As a pilot himself, my father had flown all over the country when I was growing up. However, weighed down by the chaotic series of events that morning, he had never sounded, or felt, farther away than he did in that moment.

That night, I drove two blocks to the gas station nearest to my apartment and waited in line for thirty minutes to fill up. Not for any reason other than increased speculation that gasoline could very well become as scarce for all of us as it was for The Road Warrior. I didn’t know that this speculation would quickly turn out to be false. I didn’t know that, while probably a wise thing to do considering the circumstances, it was nonetheless an overreaction. The point is, I didn’t know anything for sure.

For all I and everyone else knew, more attacks could already be in the offing. As the week drew on and the rubble smoldered and the President spoke through a loudspeaker and cable news gave airtime to every interpretation it could think of, reassurance of safety never came. We became increasingly aware that the world – or at least our place within it – had irrevocably changed. We were living in a new normal. Fear had struck, and in so doing it had released its most dangerous toxins: suspicion and anxiety. As a result, these became the main contributors to our opinions and our behaviors. When the identities of the culprits came to light, a lot of us promptly became experts at identifying suspicious people (or, at least, identifying anyone with brown skin, be they Arab, Persian, or Puerto Rican) because we had been reminded of stranger-danger and were compelled to be ever-vigilant going forward. We keyed in to newscasts and foreign policy reports with greater interest than before, not because we were interested in the news itself, but because we were as stressed and worried as we had ever been, and we craved even the slightest of assurances that corrections were being made and retributions were being paid.

We hadn’t expected anything like 9/11, but now we knew better. We knew that it could happen again, at any moment, at any time, and be the work of just about anybody.

Whether we were aware of it or not, we had been ushered into the world of dread, a state of existence that befalls any who allow fear to rule over their lives. The world of dread is a vast, lawless landscape of the mind where anything goes and the darkest scenarios are not merely possible, they are probable. So protect what is yours at all costs, and trust no one.

In the aftermath of 9/11, the primary narratives about our lives, the world, even existence itself changed, and not for the better. We became less trusting, more withdrawn and individualistic. Our sense of community was no longer driven by hospitality and inclusion, but rather a circling of the wagons. However, this shift in our perspectives was so subtle that most of us hardly noticed. We just assumed we had learned a tragic lesson about being more cautious as a society. About individual responsibility and the dangers of naivety. About the need to indulge our doubts regarding the alleged kindness of strangers.

The Damaging Effects of Dread

I know how far-reaching are the effects of dread. I have experienced first-hand what happens when we let fear rule over our minds and cloud our perspectives.

Thirteen years before the Towers fell, my own little world caved in. On 12/19 of 1987, my sister died suddenly and tragically, the victim of a freak accident during a Christmas-caroling hayride. Like all of us on 9/11, I don’t think anyone in my family, or any other family who belonged to our small town’s First Baptist Church, woke up that morning expecting anything but another chilly, central Texas day filled with holiday shopping and home decoration. But by nightfall, I found myself in the back of the family van as it barreled along county roads, my father praying aloud the same desperate words: “Jesus, please. Please, Jesus.” When we arrived on a neighborhood street near the center of town, I saw the swirling red glare of an ambulance. My parents made me stay in the car. I don’t know how long I was alone in there. It could have been five minutes, it could  have been fifty. All I remember is feeling jealous that Katy would get more attention – maybe even more presents – over the holidays because obviously with this accident she would be in some sort of cast. Perhaps encasing a broken arm, or maybe a broken leg. But everyone would want to sign it, and that meant a lot more focus on her than me. (I hope you will give me a break on this; I was eight years old, and this was the most selfish time of the year for kids my age.) But then the side door of the van finally opened and my parents were standing there and my father looked at me and, in a voice strangled by tears, he spoke my name and said, “Katy died tonight.” I cried, too, and held onto my mother. Neither she nor my father ever appeared more helpless than they did in that moment.

In the weeks that followed, I found myself wandering into my sister’s bedroom a lot. It was the standard bedroom of a thirteen-year-old, eighth-grade girl. I opened and closed her music box. I ran my fingers along the spines of her collection of young adult paperbacks. I fiddled with her Garfield telephone that opened its eyes when you took the receiver off the cradle. Mostly I listened to the silence and allowed myself to exist in the sudden, gaping emptiness of the place.

I wondered where Katy was now. I wondered how soon it would be before death came for me as well.

For the next decade and a half, I lived with the knowledge that tragedy can strike at any time. And no one is safe. There was little I knew for sure, but I did know one thing. If death could befall a thirteen-year-old girl on a Christmas-caroling hayride, it could certainly come for me at any moment.

I had become acquainted with death, perhaps far sooner than children should be. It was on my mind a lot. I would lie in bed at night, paralyzed with dread, not so much by the standard closet boogeymen and half-dozen other nocturnal fears I was used to, but by the thought of my own candle being unceremoniously snuffed out. What did it matter how I went out, really? The simple fact was that, sooner or later, I was a goner.

It was this unrelenting weight of dread that eventually got me listening more closely in church. When talk arose of salvation and going to heaven (which was, of course, far better than the alternative), I perked up my ears and paid attention. Eventually, about a year after Katy’s death, I whispered some semblance of a sinner’s prayer beneath the protective shroud of my bed covers. Essentially, it was a get-out-of-hell-free prayer. I accepted that only Jesus could save me, and so I asked him to. But despite praying the prayer, my fears of sudden death were not instantly relieved. Quite the contrary. While I was happy to have followed the prescribed steps to ensure I wouldn’t burn for eternity, I was still destined to die, and that in itself remained a terrifying thing.

If anything, I became even more fixated on death, and the parasitic dread that had wormed its way into my mind continued to pump me full of anxiety. It got to the point that even heaven became an unsettling concept. Did eternity really just go on and on, never-ending, a perpetual, otherworldly existence? I couldn’t wrap my mind around such a thing, no matter how golden the streets were said to be, and so, ironically, I came to fear the unknown of a second existence as much as I dreaded the certainty that the first one would one day come to a most-assured end.

The Dwindling of Dread

It has taken a long time, a great deal of reflection, and the dismissing of a lot of bad theology to even begin to climb out of a self-dug grave of dread. But this is what fear does; it corrupts everything it touches. It can turn even the brightest hopes into unnerving shadows.

I believe this has been one of the most significant impacts of 9/11. For all our patriotic responses, I cannot help but recognize an undercurrent of dread in so much of what we think, say, and do as a country. We use the term “post 9/11 world” often, because we have accepted that things have changed. That life will never again be like it was in a pre-9/11 world. And the theological struggles of my youth have helped me understand just how difficult it can be to resist the relentless pull of fear upon our minds.

It is almost impossible not to feel overwhelmed by the prospects of impending disaster, or be swept up in the sensationalistic fear-mongering of cable news, social media, and presidential elections. The enterprises of suspicion, prejudice, distrust and dread are as robust as ever. In fact, it seems we have become expert practitioners in these unspiritual disciplines, to the point that no country in the world could ever claim greater proficiency in the neuroses of terror. We may barrel out our chests and insist that the terrorists will never win, but that’s only because we mostly judge the win-lose line according to physical destruction, not mental anguish.

Now, I’m not saying caution is all bad. And I’m not arguing that the dangers we perceive in our world aren’t real. While we had plenty to fear before 9/11, our cup does indeed seem to runneth over sixteen years later. We are afraid of terrorism hotbeds and lone-wolf attacks and mobs of white supremacists. We are afraid of rogue police officers and creepy clown sightings and all those killers and rapists who keep crossing our unwalled Mexican border. We are afraid of WikiLeaks and alt-right news and diplomats who hide their super-secret, society-crumbling schemes on private e-mail servers. We are afraid of the politics of Supreme Court justices, the inherent dangers in visiting crowded public squares, and the persistent reports that our oceans’ temperatures are rising. We’re afraid even of our own President.

As I compose this long and winding post, the unrelenting, peripheral winds of Hurricane Irma slam my house. I look out my bedroom window and see the trees swaying violently. So, yeah, there’s still plenty of natural disasters to fear, too. Maybe even more than there used to be, thanks to those (allegedly) warmer oceans. Sometimes it seems as unlikely that we can successfully resist fearfulness as it is that these trees will resist bending beneath the power of a hurricane.

One needs only a few seconds to take stock of how much we have to fear even in the present moment. As I write all this, half of Houston lies in ruins, a maniacal dictator aims his intercontinental ballistic missiles in our direction, and a catastrophic storm shakes my part of the country like a dog with a chew-toy. So it is that any reflecting I attempt to do on this 9/11 anniversary will of course be a reflection on the crippling, society-altering effects of fear. But at least these days my prayers are no longer voiced according to the language of dread. My supplications are not merely one despondent lament after another. No, I am learning how to pray hopeful prayers. They are honest, yes, and full of sincerity about the world I live in, but they retain an unabashed optimism about this present life.

Here are some of the things I pray for these days:

I pray that those like me – who have indeed repented of all their false narratives and embraced the salvation offered by and through Jesus – might exhibit the courage and the resolve so many people in this country boast about but don’t actually possess. That we would take a hacksaw to the shackles of future-fear, and vehemently refuse to let our perspectives become clouded by suspicion and anxiety.

I pray that even within this reality of ours, which some days feels as if it suffers under the sick compulsion to remind us that death is swift and inevitable, we would lean into a different set of disciplines – compassion, encouragement, patience, intelligence, mercy, advocacy, and self-control – and truly, truly become people who do not live inside self-made prisons of dread.

I pray that when doubts arise and fears assail, we would seize upon the greatest of all disciplines: love. And not just any love. Not a shallow, fleeting, self-obsessed love. Not a vacuous, tolerant, permissive love. The love we pursue must be much stronger than those. The love we choose to give must be a love that is resilient. It must not conform in any way to the patterns and prejudices of a frightened world. “There is no fear in love,” wrote the Apostle John, “but perfect love drives out fear, because fear expects punishment. The person who is afraid has not been made perfect in love.”

So, on the anniversary of 9/11, even as many of us sit amidst the rage of Irma, may we devote ourselves to a power that is as unexpected and society-altering as death, yet became the only force in the universe death could not defeat. May we learn His kind of love. Sacrificial, unconditional, irrepressible. A love that rejects every ounce of fear. A perfect love.

Free from dread.

2 thoughts on “On 9/11, Death, and the Crippling Effects of Fear

  1. “This is what fear does; it corrupts everything it touches. It can turn even the brightest hopes into unnerving shadows. … May we learn His kind of love. Sacrificial, unconditional, irrepressible. A love that rejects every ounce of fear. A perfect love. Free from dread.”

    Amen, brother.

    Like

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