It seemed a Wednesday morning like any other.
I was living in Wan Chai, in my comparatively large apartment, and woke– as I always did– to the dawn’s light reflecting off of the building across from mine. My memories of those early rosy hues making their way across my room are some of my sweetest. I savour my moments of solitude, even to the extent that I regularly did not turn the TV on when I got home most nights. The previous night was no exception.
Fortified by milk tea and a Hong Kong style bao, I made my muzzy-headed way to the MTR where, because I was traveling against the flow, I had relative quiet and space as I watched the colours of the stations announce my teleportation across time and space. I suspected nothing was different or amiss as I boarded the staff shuttle bus from my final stop up to the school where I was employed as a sometime teacher and something of a chaplain. My official title was “pastoral care officer”, a title that to this day strikes me as oxymoronic in North American vernacular.
Once on the bus, an Australian colleague turned to me and said, “how about those planes hitting the World Trade Center in New York?” As I knew him to be the kind of person you shouldn’t take seriously, I scoffed at his poor attempt at a joke until a teacher from England interjected and told me, “no, it’s real.” And she held up her morning paper to show me the image that has haunted me for the last 20 years.
The principal of my school, a short, grey-headed Italian Canadian man, met me as I stepped off the bus. His expression was grave.
“You’ve heard about what happened in New York?”
My lips formed the words but my mind wasn’t in them. “I just heard.”
He nodded. “I was hoping you could say something to us all this morning at a special assembly. You know, maybe a prayer or a meditation of some kind. Something to help us process all of this. We’ll gather the kids in homerooms first and then the assembly will be on. That gives you about 20 minutes to prepare.”
I liked our principal, so I agreed. Besides, I was young, and the thought of saying “no” didn’t occur to me.
I went into my office and put my head in my hands. Now what?
Before I knew it, I was in front of about two hundred students and staff. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but in my best thoughts about myself, this is part of what I remember saying:
“It’s tempting to want to draw battle lines of ‘good versus evil.’ Given what’s happened, that makes a lot of sense. But what if we stopped ourselves from doing this? What if we didn’t go ahead and drop bombs on those responsible, but instead, dropped aid packages and worked with the people there? What if we didn’t see ‘good versus evil’, and we saw only our fellow humans? Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once said, ‘the line between good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.’ I wonder, can we live with that kind of view of ourselves and others, and in so doing, learn to forgive?”
I don’t know how much impact my little meditation had on the people that heard it. It’s likely it was too much for children whose second language was English and cynical teachers who had escaped into international school teaching as a way of avoiding uncomfortable questions at home. Yet it’s one of the few things I’ve kept with me over seminary, pastoring, marriage, children, doctoral studies, and now my little podunk practice. I think often about what our world would look like now if we had decided not to vilify and outgroup others out of instinct, but had taken the time to do the hard work of compassion.
We often think of compassion as sympathy. Yet a better definition may be to realize that the root meaning of compassion is to share in the suffering of others. This means that if we desire to become compassionate people, we must develop the capacity to hear and understand why others suffer the way they do. Historically, compassion is not something nation states have been good at performing, choosing instead diplomacy based on a closed fist rather than an open hand. This is not to say, of course, that Western powers who subsequently responded to 9/11 by invasion have not also attempted to extend humanitarian aid. However, you can appreciate that any message of care and overtures of peace are quickly forgotten when bombs and bullets from your supposed benefactors are tearing your country apart.
Many of my clients have despaired at our Western world. Not for the pandemic alone, but for the fractious frameworks that seem to bubble up from everywhere. Right versus left. Christian versus Muslim. Vax versus anti-vax. And today, on the anniversary of the moment when the civilization I grew up with changed into another, I wonder how much better off we would be in this moment if we heeded Solzhenitsyn’s words and considered how it is not “us against them”, but that we are all responsible for good and evil. Perhaps a way through our tribalistic impulses is to not only recognize but understand why others adopt the moral framework they do. What has happened in their world, in their culture, and in their history to lead them to such characterizations and actions? It does seem unfair for those of us who are actually interested in bridging ideological divides to have to exert the effort do that kind of work (especially if we are convinced we are right), but the hope of this would be to develop a way of suffering with those who do evil but cannot see it as such.
I had not heard the name Osama bin Laden until September of that fateful year. And though I confess I have never listened to any of his teaching, my guess is that his worldview was formed by a confluence of histories and particularities of his culture that led to particular interpretations of his duty to the world. In his mind, he was making the world a better place by committing an atrocity. Which, of course, the Americans had done for decades in his part of the world in the name of “national security.”
I’ll grant that there is only a tenuous connection between the widespread public recognition of terrorists bent on destroying the West and modern-day strongholds of anti-mask/anti-vaccine proponents. But both believe they were and are doing good, and so adhere to destructive principles because of their belief that some higher principle is worth a “few” casualties. For one, it might have been to make America pay for its “sins.” For the other, it may be to preserve an ideal of “freedom” as individually-determined instead of being one of doing what is best for all. And as one who only leans left, I do wonder about why people whom I might also characterize as family in Christ hold such anti-scientific and destructive views. What in their world, the history, and their culture have led them to circle their wagons again and again? Is it the browning of their nation by means of immigration and interracial marriage and the subsequent dilution of a perceived ingroup? Is it the neo-liberal demand for inclusion and change– some of which ask for inclusion by means of a more mindful use of language? Is it the fear that somehow God will abandon their nation as the supposed “city on a hill” if they give ground to perceived barbarians?
Most of my family and friends hold the same sort of frame I do. We are all fully vaccinated. We all mask up in public and common spaces. We are all of a certain socioeconomic status and theological outlook that values science and its methodology. I generally swim in waters that are both gentle and kind to people such as me. As such, I have deep admiration for people who do not withdraw from family and friends who hold worldviews that seem not only ignorant (which is not a sin) but also selfish and hateful. It is only because these relationships exist that we might begin to examine again the line that runs through each of us and realize that we perhaps have more in common than we have thought.
It is easy to demonize those with whom we disagree– especially if it is a matter of public health– but there is a real psychological push behind that impulse. Namely, the intoxication of moral superiority from those who perhaps have higher education, greater characterological openness, and a large dose of wanting to find our ingroup can propel many of us towards dehumanizing others. I have noticed that I hover around the line between good and evil when my heart closes towards social media “friends” who pass on propaganda or clients who hold different views. I feel myself pull away in disgust. But the hard work of being a therapist is to look through these differences and to remain curious. To seek understanding despite holding disagreement. As my wife would say, “this is why they pay you the big bucks.” To love by way of knowing while perceiving there may be better for both of us is nothing less than the Way of Christ. Yet is it too late to be such a person who believes that there is the possibility of recognizing that we are not so far apart? Could we become people who see neither “right” nor “left” or “conservative” nor “liberal”, but “together” in this, a crucial time when we need all of us to put our shoulders to the cause of good for all.