“Whenever I see the number 9-11, even if it’s on a clock, I realize that it’s no longer just a number anymore,” said a teenager who attends high school in Northern Virginia and was interviewed on NPR this morning. It seems as though this statement, obvious as it is in some ways, summarizes well the feeling many people have when looking at or hearing about three simple numbers whose meaning has been irrevocably changed.
The Yates Art Gallery at Siena College is exhibiting a series of work related to the 10th Anniversary of the attacks. The title of the exhibition is “Sometimes Words are not enough.” I think the way that the young man on NPR struggled to express the emotions he experiences when he sees the numbers 9-11, the way in which so many are recalling the still very immediate experiences of ten years ago, the way our lives have been affected by the attacks on a Tuesday morning, the wars that have cost thousands more lives and so many other things, can all be summed up with the inevitable line: “sometimes words are not enough.”
I really struggle with the memory of the attacks of September 11, 2001. As I wrote in the book Franciscan Voices on 9/11, our memories are not simply our own, nor are they collectively objective, but they are riddled by everything that has happened since the early morning on the day of the attacks up and through this point in time today.
I struggle because I feel many of the same emotions that everybody else does. I cry at the stories of the lives lost, particularly those of children talking about the parents who died that day or the way in which my brother in Franciscan life, Mychal Judge OFM, inspired or continues to inspire the lives of so many.
Yet, I also struggle because we are free to respond to those real, powerful and entirely legitimate emotions in a number of ways. Do those feelings, do the memories of the lives lost and the fear conjured lead us to forgive and work toward greater understanding and peace in the world? or, do those emotions lead us to a sense of nationalism, violence, xenophobia and vengeance?
For me, these emotions kindle a fire of justice in my heart that does not look like a “Mission Accomplished” sign or a lower price for oil or a campaign to prevent a group of people in the United States from opening a place of worship because of their religion. The justice I seek is one of reconciliation and embrace, of forgiveness and peace.
I too get choked up and cry as I recall what happened a decade ago when I was but a college freshman. And my prayers continue to be offered up for the memory of those who met Sister Bodily Death that day and now know a peace the world cannot give. But, this authentic experience of sadness and sorrow does not lead me to want to harm yet more people, nor do I — nor can I — support even the loved ones who remain and wish to hurt others in return for their loss.
Sometimes words are not enough and, as we know so well, actions are more powerful than words. While our words carry a strength and a responsibility, one that demands our careful use to promote understanding and peace instead of violence and discrimination, our actions in our lives, in our nation and in our world must reflect the love of a God who also mourned the loss of so many lives, but who does not sanction revenge.
Sometimes words are not enough, but we must struggle as poets of life to illustrate the hope that our deceased brothers and sisters would want us to find and share with others.
Sometimes words are not enough. And so we just try to be instruments of peace.