Ten years ago today was picture day at my high school. Despite everything else that happened on September 11, 2001, we all still gathered in the Auxiliary Gym to take our annual year book photos. Business as usual, except for the tone that overtook the entire day.
In every class we sat glued to CNN waiting for updates. No one really knew what was going on, but even if we did there was little we could do from Oregon but sit, watch, and shake our heads in anger, frustration, and fear.
It was those three emotions, though, that brought out the worst in me. That day, a part of my character that, even a short 5 years later, I’ve reflected upon with shame.
Standing in the Aux Gym, waiting my turn to put on a fake smile for the camera, I overheard my friend E talking about New York:
If we didn’t have a f**ing Boy Scout in the White House, we’d be doing something about this.
My, admittedly shameful response:
No, if we had a Boy Scout for a president, we’d have already nuked those f**king b***ards for what they did.
I was angry. My country had just been attacked and there was nothing I could have done to prevent it and nothing I could do at the time to help the growing situation in New York. I was also angry that a friend was using a caricature I relate to – a Boy Scout – to define the president’s assumed inaction in response. My gut instinct was to scream, “no, I’m a man of action, and I would do something to exact vengeance on those that hurt us.”
I was, in one breath, attempting to defend an organization I love (the Scouts), a country I love, myself, my friends, and everything I care about. Sadly, by doing so I was kicking dirt in the face of everything I was trying to defend.
I was repaying hate with hate, passing judgement on an amorphous “them” who had yet to be defined. I was declaring that the right action was to kill everyone involved. I was throwing morality, patience, forgiveness, redemption, and pride to the wind. In a moment, I had passed judgement on an entire country – an entire people – even an entire religion.
And I felt justified.
For years I felt I’d taken the moral high ground and I had absolutely zero regrets about what I said, the discussions my friends and I had that followed, and all of the thoughts and emotions I’d harbored that day. Until I caught up with a friend from high school who, though I didn’t notice at the time, missed several months of school following that September.
My friend L is from the Middle East. Following September 11th, people with whom I’d agreed assaulted her father, vandalized her home, threatened her life, and verbally attacked her on the street. Her entire family stayed in their home with the windows boarded up for weeks in fear of the neighbors and community members they’d counted as friends just days before.
She confessed to me in college that she’d even avoided me out of fear, though I’d never directed a harsh word to her.
That was the most damning and revealing conversation I have ever had with a friend.
It showed me just how wrong and filled with hate I had been. I had responded to a hate-filled act with hate and demanded not just a tooth for a tooth, but an entire nation.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:43-48)
Here was my neighbor, my friend, seeing from me not an outpouring of love but an abundance of hate. Reflecting on that, and on how I’d been trying to use my life as a ministerial example of the love of Christ, brought me to tears. In reality, it still does. I have never been more ashamed of my behavior than I am when I think about the way I reacted to September 11, 2011.
There are a million things I could have done. A million things I could have said. A million ways I could have responded to lift up those who were hurting, to help my friends cope with tragedy, to help drive the Church to respond with compassion and lead as an example. But I did none of that. Despite how mature and grown I thought I was at the time, it was only by thinking back on those days that I could see how far I had yet to come. How far I still have to go.
Five years ago, following that conversation, I wrote a short poem explaining my feelings in hindsight. It’s no less potent now than it was then, and no less important.
Five Years Later
On that day
I was proud of what I was
And hated what I wasn’t.
Looking back, I see
That’s exactly what they wanted.
Today is the ten year anniversary not just of the greatest tragedy in recent American history, but also of the greatest failure of my walk with Christ. It’s a time for all of us to remember – those who were lost, those who stepped out in heroism, and how we personally reacted through a deeply trying time in our lives. For me, it’s a time to remember both how much I’ve grown since then and to check myself where I am and recognize how much room there is for my continued growth.
I am not now, nor have I ever been, nor will I ever be a perfect man. But I can rest in the knowledge that I’m forgiven for my failings all the same. And I can continue to look on Christ as an example and endeavor to model my life, my behavior, my attitudes, and my thoughts more fully on Him.