Keep Calm and Carry On

September 11, 2011
Rev. Dr. Victoria Weinstein


We remember. We remember and our bodies remember the shock and the fear. Our bodies remember that we have shared a trauma. If we pray for anything in our lives, it is to be spared trauma, to be able to have the ordinary highs and lows of a human life from birth to death. We pray this for our children more ardently than we pray it for ourselves: please, an ordinary life, please. Spare them anything too harsh. To have trauma inflicted on oneself, one's tribe, or even a stranger with whom one feels simple human kinship is enraging. The unfairness of it. The vexing questions that arise about justice, about what is sacred, about what security really means, questions about the meaning of life, and the condition of our species. We gather here to grapple with those questions, to seek a way to live with it all, a way to hold steady and not degenerate into quivering masses of anxiety.

We seek couer-age (coeur= heart). Courage, mon amis.

Where were you on 9/11? It is the question being shared today all across America. I lived in Maryland when this particular, defining moment in the collective American history of trauma happened, forty-five minutes outside of Washington, DC. My congregation didn't have a building of its own and so there was nowhere to go, no doors to open to the community, no place to gather together. That was hard. We had no bell to ring.

We came together in an interfaith center for a community worship service that evening: what did we call it? I mean, what would you call such a thing? I can't remember. I was one of several clergy who participated, gave a little homily of some sort. I should have admitted that I had nothing to say and didn't want to say anything. I had been reading all day from the book of Psalms. I was in shock. My brother and his wife worked in Lower Manhattan and I didn't even know how they were, or where. Guard me, O Lord, from the hands of the wicked; protect me from the violent who have planned my downfall. (Psalm 140) We were very close to DC. We thought the bombing would start any time. There was no way to have any idea what might happen next, it was chaos, insanity.

Deliver me, O Lord, from evildoers;

protect me from those who are violent,

who plan evil things in their minds

and stir up war continually. (Psalm 140)

Author Diana Butler Bass suggested that we observe this tenth anniversary in silence. Yes, that would be good. It is the Quaker way to listen for wisdom in shared silence. Did you know that the Unitarians and the Quakers once discussed merging? Silence is a good way.

But since someone once described Unitarians as mouthy Quakers, I will venture a word in search of wisdom, in search of meaning. And that word is reaction. I hold it up against its opposite: response.

If there is any wisdom to be gained now, a decade after watching the terrifying spectacle of passenger planes full of innocent civilians being used as missiles and flown into buildings full of more innocent civilians -- (what a demonically creative form of horror that was) -- it may be in the words REACTION and RESPONSE. I offer this reflection in the spirit of humility, and in a spirit of love for my nation. God bless America. Yes, I got a bumper sticker for my car after 9/11 that said, "God Bless The Whole World, No Exceptions" but I am an American and I love my country. God bless America. We have had a painful decade. Bless us and bring us to wisdom. This reflection is an effort to find some meaning, some wisdom from the past ten years.

Reaction. [clap] It's that fast, intense move you make from a place of fear and survival. Someone punches you, you react. Boom, punch back. Your car starts skidding off the road, you react. You yank the steering wheel back. Sometimes reaction is life-saving. think of this moment in my mom's swimming pool a few years ago: I was floating around in the middle of the pool chatting with my sister who was sitting on the pool deck with my nephew Nicholas. Suddenly Nicky tumbled into the water, head over heels. My body froze; I could not move my arms to swim to him. But my sister reacted. She got in the water, fully clothed, and strode over to the submerged child and grabbed him. In one swift second she had plucked him out of the water, gasping and sputtering. She set him firmly on the deck and announced, "There you go. You're fine." Nicholas looked very much like he on the verge of hysterical tears but my sister was very insistent as she briskly toweled him off. "You're fine. You're okay." And he decided that he was okay, and ran into the house. At that point only did his two aunties themselves burst into hysterical laughter and tears. Reaction is not about thinking or considering. It is about action. It is about survival.

Reaction comes from the reptilian brain, the fight-or-flight instinct hard-wired into us from our earliest origins as hominids who had to run from saber toothed tigers to avoid becoming lunch. We're glad for it; many of us are alive today because of that survival instinct. But it doesn't make for wisdom, it doesn't take the long view, it doesn't consider consequences, it isn't rational. It is the opposite of thoughtful. It does not make for good foreign policy. It makes for perfectly understandable foreign policy, deeply satisfying foreign policy for the vengeful hearts we all, every single one of us, harbor in our souls. We're human, I don't blame us for that. I don't think it worth criticizing or acting superior to any people who call for vengeance, who want to do harm to those who want to harm them or their people. Our task is to question, to challenge, and to consider that wonderful quote from "The African Queen," that Katherine Hepburn says. "Nature, Mr. Alnutt, is what we are put in this world to rise above."

In our national reaction to 9/11, our first responders... responded. Notice that wording. We call our trained emergency and public safety professionals first responders. We don't call them first reactors. But our nation's leaders reacted. We know, a decade into that reaction, where we stand. What the cost has been of that reaction.

Our task, as we grieve the past, as we look at where we are now, and as we move forward, is to study our nature, to have compassion for it, and to transcend those aspects of it that we must admit do not contribute to our goal of moral evolution. In short, to rise above it. To go from reaction to response. Just like first responders must be trained to know what to do in the face of crisis, so must we train ourselves to respond rather than react to perceived or real threats. We learn to create security within. The ancients called this inner security the peace that passeth understanding. The hymn writer called it "that inmost calm no storm can shake."

This year, I invite you to obtain a copy of Karen Armstrong's book, "Twelve Steps To A Compassionate Life," which contains a kind of blueprint for that training for compassion. And now I am reading from a review of Armstrong's book: "Simply put, Armstrong's 12 steps aim to ‘retrain our responses and form mental habits that are kinder, gentler and less fearful of others.' We are to achieve this by doing unto others as we would have them do unto us. And by loving our neighbors as ourselves.... Armstrong presents the Golden Rule as not just an ideal but as a 21st-century necessity. The global economy, she points out, is so interconnected that everyone is a neighbor. National boundaries are essentially meaningless, as war affects financial markets around the world and one group's suffering is likely to provoke vengeance and more harm. "So if we harm our neighbors," Armstrong writes, "we also inflict damage on ourselves."

Armstrong exhorts readers to "make space for the other" in their minds and speech, calling for compassionate discourse that leads to insight rather than speech devoted to persuading others to agree with us. "We do not engage in many dialogues like this today," she writes, adding that "it is not enough for us to seek the truth; we also want to defeat and even humiliate our opponents." Coming to an argument ready to lose or change our convictions is a tough mind-set to adopt in this hyper-partisan world, but Armstrong stresses that realizing how little we know can be the gateway to absorbing new knowledge and overturning destructive stereotypes." (Lisa Bonos review of Karen Armstrong's Twelve Steps To A Compassionate Life, The Washington Post, January 16, 2011)

Retrain our responses, says Armstrong. I would only quibble with her word choice, as she uses the word "responses" where I would use the word "reactions." But our hope is the same. And I consider her a spiritual guide in the task. I hope that you will acquaint yourself with the Charter for Compassion online, and that you will spread the word about our Wednesday night monthly worship service that we will have starting next month that is designed around the Charter for Compassion. We grieve the past, and we remember, and we move on. Sadder, but I hope wiser, knowing and understanding a bit more about our place in the world, a bit more about our nation's own dark side, and about our own individual hearts and minds, our own reptilian brain -- and also about the more evolved parts of our nature.

While I was in London this summer, I became fond of a slogan that was designed by the British Ministry of Information during World War II as a way to remind the Brits to hold steady in the face of invasion and attack. It was 1939 when these posters appeared. You have no doubt seen this logo, as it has become very popular in retail stores here. It is KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON.

While this is a charming expression of British reserve and stiff-upper-lip stoicism that many New Englanders admire and can relate to personally as their own emotional style, it has become more than that to me. It has become a spiritual teaching that says, "Hold on. Breathe. Don't react. Think. Consider. Take time. Respond, if you must. And if not, simply carry on."

We cannot wish away fear, for our brains are permanently wired to be gripped by fear when our lives are in danger. And thank goodness for that, our good old reliable reptilian brains that will tell us to run as fast as we can when the enemy approaches. But we have a more evolved nature, and it that nature that we must train, nurture and develop for the long term, for ourselves, for our personal relationships, for our communities, for our nation, and for our shared vision of a better world.

We remember. And we grieve. We reflect on both our responses and our reactions as individuals and as a nation in the aftermath of that day, and we carry on both because of, and in spite of, it all.

Couer-age, friends.