There are many life and cultural events that shape us individually and as a society. One of the first events I clearly remember is the first Gulf War and joking with my Elementary aged friends about Saddam “Insane.” We thought we were so clever.
Another more personal memory I have from around this time (or earlier, 5? 6?) is an afternoon where Mom is making snow peas in the kitchen. Dad comes in from the backyard and he says something about not liking peas or not liking what we were having for dinner. Somehow, I am old enough to know this and other things. All of a sudden Mom is knocking the near boiling pot of water off of the stove. The peas are flying. She’s mad. I hear her slam the front door. I run to my room to grab my shoes. In passing the kitchen I see Dad trying to pick up the spilt peas and I say something along the lines of “now see what you’ve done.” I’m terrified she’ll leave. I run out to the car and get in. I don’t know whether she invites me in or whether I just open the door. I ask her where she is going. She says, “away.” I ask if I can come. Meanwhile, she is struggling to get the car started. She’s too upset. In a moment she gives up and we get out of the car. This is the first time I can clearly remember this happening, taking responsibility for someone else’s emotions (needing to keep Mom happy), being terrified of Mom being mad and yet being aware that this has happened before, and that there are consequences to be afraid of to making Mom mad. At the time, as a kid, I didn’t have the ability to make sense of this.
The next cultural event I really remember being impacted by was the Columbine High School shootings. I remember feeling empathy for the shooters as much as the victims. I remember this as the year my high school had so many bomb threats that we started speculating on what period of the day we’d be forced out of the building. I remember the bomb threats all but stopping after Columbine.
I see Columbine as my first awakening. It was my first, though not my last, experience of collective confusion, shock, empathy, sympathy, then righteous anger. I think it was my first real encounter with curiosity about the mental health of others.
Of course I was aware of the Oklahoma City bombing, how could I not be? But I was 10 at the time; the perpetrator, an adult, a bad man. Columbine was committed by teenagers, on teenagers, the same as I was.
My true loss of innocence came on 9/11. I was 18. I was in Western Pennsylvania for school, my first year of college. I was home for the day. It was Tuesday and I only had classes on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. I was half watching The Today Show, wrapped in a red and blue quilt my grandmother made me. I saw the planes hit. I saw the news as the day unfolded. And when we heard the news of the plane crashing in a field just across the county from us, I saw my Uncle put his revolver on the dining room table. This, and the following days, weeks, and months, were my second experience with collective confusion, shock, empathy, sympathy, and righteous anger. This was a period of time I feel truly altered my consciousness forever.
As a country we didn’t know how to react. We were united in our anger. We were united in our care and concern for our fellow countrymen and women, those who were like us anyway. On order to regain some sense of control and feelings of safety we lashed out at those different from ourselves, especially if you were Middle Eastern.
Eventually a new normal returned and I’d like to think many of us were more inclusive, more neighborly, less aggressively anti-other. I think of the shooting at the Pittsburgh synagogue not too long ago…and the violence against mosques. I have seen members of different faiths stand guard so that others can worship in peace. This is as it should be.
Now we face a new kind of threat and I worry about the narrative that is being created as we are in the middle of all of this. There are those that are clamoring for the economy to reopen. There are those desperate for jobs. If only the economic systems put in place after The Great Depression still worked efficiently…but no. We’ve gotten too complacent to worry overmuch about the least of us. Programs intended for the greater good have been defunded and labeled as “wasteful spending.” I worry about what this is doing to us as a society. I worry that we will revert back to suspicion, isolation, and every man for himself policies.
I worry that concentrating on the negative will inure us from the good, positive, and altruistic parts of ourselves. Will we become hyper-vigilant to threats to our security? Will we be less likely to extend ourselves? Will stocking and hoarding and isolating become our new normal? Will our essential social connections become wired in our collective unconscious as a threat? Is the an entirely new kind of loss of innocence?
You see 9/11 was an immediate and drastic event. This pandemic and the narrative created by the media and those visible representations of mores and memes, is ongoing and more unpredictable in many ways, and certainly much more elusive. It is something we are fighting on multiple fronts and we are not even all that sure we are fighting well. It is as if we are shadow boxing with ghosts.
There is nothing decisive or even anything much that gives the illusion of decisiveness; That is where the long term effects of change come in. There is nothing yet to allow us to build consistent meaning around because meaning changes from day to day, week to week, with many of us just trying to get by, to survive. So my question is, what will all of this mean in the end and how do we go about finding the answer?