I wish that this was not so hard. 14 years after September 11th and this has been one of the hardest anniversaries. I have no idea why. There are probably a million theories as to why grief and trauma sneak up on people years after an event. Some of those theories are great and many of the treatments for the pain of hurt and loss are helpful and allow people to live their lives. I know they have helped me. But as my therapist says, “All psychology is made up”. No one really knows for sure how it all works, we just know that some of it does and we stumble, mostly in the dark, until something works for us. Other times nothing works. Everything just feels like a storm of pain, sadness and grief.
For most people September 11th was an event. It was a terrible event, but it was a thing that happened in a far away place, something experienced on a screen. For those of us who were there, and spent time working at the World Trade Center site, it was not something we experienced on a screen, we experienced it in our bodies. With all of our senses we took it in and it became part of us.
It is a part of me that I wish I didn’t have. I don’t wear it as a badge of honor. I would gladly give it back. Maybe then I would not flinch at the sound of a low flying plane, or have my day ruined by the smell of a certain type of fire. Maybe then September could go back to being a beautiful time of year to celebrate a birthday and enjoy the start of the college football season. Maybe it would not take days to realize that I am snapping at people I love and really just putting on an act for everyone else. Maybe I would not be awake with nightmares at 4am for weeks before and after.
I was raised as a southern boy to become a southern man. One of the first rules of life I learned was to “suck it up”. Other expressions of this rule were “Be a man” and “Don’t be a pussy”. In other words, take your feelings about a particular thing and either ignore them, smash them, or turn them into one of the acceptable male emotions like anger. It took me years to unravel this fucked up emotional system, but when it comes to the big stuff I still slip into that mode and I hear the voices, “That was 14 years ago, get on with your life”, “You really didn’t lose that much compared to other people who were there. No one you knew died, you weren’t actually in the towers.” “Other people did so much more the you did.” But better than the guilt and shame, are the over responsibility messages that say, “You have a family, and a child. You can’t be sad, they need you.” “You are a priest and the rector of a big church, there is too much to do, your parishioners need you”. I understand, on my best days, in the midst of pain and hurt that all of these messages are bullshit. The last couple of weeks have not been my best days. I have been on auto pilot at best, shut down and distant or aggravated and frustrated with everything the rest of the time.
I guess I should trust the people who love me and tell me I am acting like a jerk or when I am not “there” . Usually I just get defensive and try harder to act like nothing’s wrong, try harder to not feel what I am actually feeling. That never really turns out well.
This year for some unknown combination of reasons I am really, really sad. The grief and trauma of both the day, September 11th, and the weeks and months that followed takes a huge toll on so many people. It takes a huge toll on me. Most of the time this trauma is one that plays in the background, like a radio in another room of the house. Sometimes the volume gets turned up. This year the volume has been turned way up and it sucks. I know over the next month or so the sadness and anxiety will recede as it always does. I just really wish this was not so hard.
14 years ago today a group of 5 seminarians, including me, spent hours on the corner of Church and Fulton Street behind St Paul’s chapel serving the relief workers at Ground Zero. Throughout the night we were listening for the whistle that warned us to take cover from glass still falling from the buildings in the area. We made the first pot of coffee at St Paul’s Chapel which would later become a relief and pilgrimage site for thousands of people. We organized relief supplies pouring into lower Manhattan from groups around the country, including shoes, dog food, milk, cigarettes and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches from Kansas with notes written by kindergarten students. It was a haunting night spent in the shadow of the burning pile that was once the World Trade Center.