Yesterday was my birthday. And no, this isn’t one of those self-reflective posts where I’m subtly trying to garner birthday wishes. I’m not being subtle at all, in fact, since I’ve already told you my birthday was yesterday. But I feel a certain juxtaposition in the fact that I turned 31 yesterday with today marking the 20th “anniversary” of 9/11. A couple things right off the bat: (1) I strongly dislike using the word “anniversary” to mark yearly remembrances of events other than ones at which you’d actually want to party. For whatever reason, the word “anniversary” has jovial overtones which seem entirely inappropriate in some contexts. In this instance, I’m suggesting we say “20th commemoration” of 9/11. (2) I’m struck, still, at the ubiquity of the phrase “9/11.” Those numbers have forever been transmogrified into a shorthand for “scored earth.”
I’m currently vacationing with my family in South Carolina, and in the course of none too few of our conversations, we’ve attempted to reminisce on those early moments of 9/11, when almost no one knew exactly what was going on. Our understandings of that day went from “there’s a fire in a building in NYC” to “there’s been a terrorist attack on Lower Manhattan.” The day itself felt like an epistemological odyssey, as layer after layer of that dreadful onion was peeled away.
We’re in a new chapter, now. The recent presidential failure in Afghanistan marks a dismal end to an entirely-too-long chapter of Americana that began on a seemingly normal early-autumn morning two decades ago. There’s an entire generation that has grown up in the aftermath of that wretched afternoon, with their only insights into it being the regurgitated grief of parents and grandparents. Their apprehension of that day is second-hand — as if heartache can ever truly be handed down. But as more and more individuals fit that demographic — of ones who “weren’t there” — it becomes increasingly more incumbent upon those of us who were to accurately articulate that day. To color those hours, and the years hence, in the right adverse hue. To allow for those who weren’t there to feel as though they were.
That’s the point of “stories,” right? To bring folks into a world that feels entirely corporeal. Celebrating my birthday yesterday got me to thinking about “the story of my life.” If I were coerced into telling that narrative, what would I say to make my own experiences accessible, tangible? To be honest, I’m not entirely sure. There have been several chapters in the intervening years since 9/11, each of them brimming with their own meaning. But I’ve been struck recently at the sheer number of people who have had a part to play in those chapters. As a few birthday wishes were sent my way yesterday, I noticed that they originated from individuals whose lives didn’t necessarily overlap. I’d say that’s on the shortlist of redeeming features of social media. I’ve been shaped by an incredible amount of people in incredible ways, both great and small. As I reflect on 31 years lived, that’s what I’m most grateful for: the people I’ve been fortunate enough to know. I pray I never forget the people who’ve filled up my previous chapters — the Wilmas, the Freds, the Jims, the Davids, the Toms, the Mikes, the Joshes, the Jeffs, and the Dorises.
I pray, too, to never forget the awful horrors of 9/11. I’m not saying that as a masochist or a nationalist. I’m saying that as a citizen of the United States of America who understands what that day entails. The fingers of 9/11 have wrapped themselves coldly around countless lives, changing an entire generation’s trajectory. Tracing the lines from the present back to that afternoon brings one on a journey through the valley of the shadow of death itself. Irrespective which line you choose or where you start, you’ll alway be brought to Ground Zero, to rubble, to smoking shards of steel and heaps of ash.
What’s this next chapter going to be like? Again, I don’t know. Nothing is truly certain. Even concrete things can be reduced to dust. But there is One who is certain. There is One whose providence is effectual at both the national and individual levels, whose sovereignty is expansive as well as minuscule, holding the entire universe and my little life in the balance. And, what’s more, I know that he is for me, notwithstanding what will comprise the chapter(s) ahead (Ps. 56:9; Rom. 8:31; 1 John 4:4). He’s already written my story in the blood red ink of his cross.
Turning 31 doesn’t have the same impact as other birthdays. Gone are the brightly colored birthday decor and themed parties. Perhaps 9/11 “at twenty” doesn’t have the same impact as it previously did. I hope that that isn’t true. But even as a chapter closes and a new one begins, my prayer remains the same. I pray to never forget.