The great paradox of life is that death is the only sure thing; the only future event we can truly count on. The closer people get to the gates of death, the more sensible they become. Suddenly, a morally dissolute life or the missed family opportunities of a workaholic, in retrospect, is almost always regretted. Indeed, on your death bed, all the time you spent at the office doesn’t seem so important anymore.
For those who faced imminent death on September 11, 2001, what immediately came to mind was the many cherished of recollections is the time they spent family members. As the tragedy in the World Trade Centers unfolded, there were countless phone messages left by victims whose highest priority was to say one last time, “I love you.”
Yet, what is more important than saying “I love you” to a spouse, relative or friend moments before death is the conversation they might have had with God for one last time on earth. And when America was in the midst of processing the loss of lives as well as their own deeply felt insecurities, the doors of local churches across the country were pushed open by the multitude so that they could take refuge in God within the sanctuary. To be sure, the nation’s mortality was felt for the first time in a long time; at least since December 7, 1941 when Pearl Harbor was bombed by Japan. When death is a looming possibility, it awakens the soul to the reality of eternity. Petty interests and careless living quickly lose their appeal.
God is always relevant when death draws near; even to the most stubborn of atheists. After all, death is the only certain thing in life. 9/11 was a sobering reminder that life is short and that human beings are mere mortals. As Psalm 103 clearly states, “As for man, his days are like the grass; he blossoms like a flower in the field. A wind sweeps over it and it is gone; its place knows it no more.”
This is why the contemplation of life’s end is the beginning of wisdom. When people assume they possess something indefinitely, they will value it less. This especially pertains to those who are closest to us; those we take for granted. Unfortunately, it is only by losing or feeling the absence of someone that we realize just how important they are to us. What applies to loved ones also applies to the blessings that God has given us as Americans. On 9/11 those blessings, such as life, liberty and happiness, were threatened by evil men bent on destroying America. Indeed, death and loss were very real that day. Yet, for a short time God’s goodness and the goodness of humanity shined brighter than it ever had in recent memory.
Meditating on our own mortality is the greatest paradox of life; yet, it is the least understood and perhaps the most ridiculed one. Nevertheless, it is the crux of the Gospel and the secret to preserving joy amid much loss and suffering. Jesus bids us to see through death and loss. He himself died but kept on going; he kept on pressing forward towards heaven. In fact, he blew a hole through death so that we could see through it. He even suggested that without death, life is incomplete: “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.” Yes. God’s chosen instrument of resurrection is death. And to be sure, many grains of wheat fell to the ground and died on September 11, 2001.
Americans were rightly overwhelmed with sadness; especially for the family and friends of the victims.
But it must be remembered that many fruits came from the devastation of 9/11. Americans seemed to have been raised from their moral and spiritual complacency on that infamous day and the days that followed. To be sure, the tragic events briefly summoned our attention to the more important things in life.
Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that Americans have a very short attention span. The wisdom that comes with knowing that we are mere mortals; the wisdom of knowing that we are totally dependent on God; and all of the lessons of 9/11 seemed to have receded into the background.
In many ways, we act as though a tragedy like that can never happen again.