We participate in a tragedy; at a comedy we only look.
~ Aldous Huxley, The Devils of Loudun
In the late fall of 1994, during my last year at college, I was riding in the back of a small car through the Phinney Ridge district of Seattle when our vehicle was hit by a speeding pizza deliveryman. I was knocked unconscious. I came to before I was able to open my eyes. I remember sitting several moments in darkness, confused, feeling sick, vaguely aware of the sound of a person moaning. After being strapped to a backboard and trundled into an ambulance, a police officer asked me a series of what I thought were hypothetical questions concerning an auto accident. I had no idea what he was talking about.
I wasn’t badly hurt. There was some mild internal bleeding (I pissed blood for a day) but nothing of real concern. Everyone involved in the accident was fine or on the way to fine. We were all sent home after several hours in the emergency room.
The next day it snowed and I skipped class. I hurt everywhere: my back, my neck, my arms and legs. But I couldn’t care less. There was welling up in me a peculiar sensation, like nothing I’d ever felt before. The warmth inside the apartment, the presence of friends, the crisp air outside and the snow, a bird on the porch surprised by the change of weather – it was all an incredible, delicious joy to me that day. I was intensely conscious of the fact that I was alive and that to be alive was astounding. This euphoria lasted almost a week.
I experienced the same sensation again in the days immediately following September 11, 2001. I might be faulted for it. After all, I hadn’t been in Manhattan. I hadn’t been at the Pentagon. I hadn’t suffered personally at all. No one I knew had died that morning. How could I justify a euphoria which I knew belonged only to survivors?
Somehow we were all New Yorkers that day seven years ago. Those that suffered and those that died – they became, somehow, us and our loved ones. The faces that emerged from the mountainous clouds of debris, fleeing the collapse and the volcanic flow of rubble, faces full of horror and desperation – they were our own faces.
We learned then that tears are the common property of humanity. We held their broken bones, broken hearts, pain and anger in our hands and, as much as we were able, bore them. We learned – if only for a moment – what it means to truly identify with another person, to know that your neighbor’s life is your own.
In the days that followed 9/11 we walked around like children, searching the skies. My wife and I were living in Seattle under a busy flyway. Jetliners typically passed every few minutes; we’d grown accustomed to it. But now we gazed up at the sky for the planes that weren’t there. Nothing came out of the sky anymore but birds and falling leaves, and an unembarrassed, exulting silence. Despite the horror of all that had passed, there was a beautiful, potent joy in that silence. It fell down on us in those days like the snow or September leaves, like a strange sort of grace.