Photo by Iago Godoy on Unsplash

This side of 9/11, recommitting ourselves to goodness and hope

October 20, 2021

On September 11, 2001, I was working in my home office on a new book when I got a phone call from an old college friend imploring me to turn on the TV. There, I saw a plane ram into one of the World Trade Towers, where my college roommate Frank worked for Cantor Fitzgerald. In his anguish, he left a phone message for his wife. We lost him. I lost him.

That day members of Congress from both political parties locked arms on the Capitol steps and sang “God Bless America.” We Americans began months of patriotic rituals that professed love of nation, including the singing of hymns at ballgames and placing flag decals on cars and homes.

But toward what end? With what results?

In a national study just a year or two later, Americans told me that amid the flurry of patriotic acts we had actually lost sight of our opportunity to strengthen the nation: to change our nasty politics, renew community ties, and address hard issues.

So, where are we as a nation, as a people, 20 years later? What have we learned? Where do we go from here?

The good news is that we have finally come face-to-face with so many systematic fault lines in our society. I also believe that we as a people are less polarized than our political leaders and news media portray.

In a new national study we’re currently conducting, people tell me they feel untethered, their realities distorted by leaders and news media, along with a profound sense of loss of control over their lives and future. In just the past couple of years, the global pandemic has wreaked havoc on our nation and on us. Racial injustice and inequity have been clearly illuminated for all to see. Our economy limps along, people face eviction, and political divisions seemingly grow.

The good news—I always believe there is good news—is that we have finally come face-to-face with so many systematic fault lines in our society. I also believe, based on this new study, that we as a people are less polarized than our political leaders and news media portray, notwithstanding their desire to actively stoke acrimony and division for their own cynical gain.

Indeed, time and again, in one community after another, people are coming together to ensure that kids have access to remote learning, elderly shut-ins are looked after, and we act on racial injustice, among many concerns. Moreover, we have proven we can innovate rapidly to develop new vaccines and disseminate them, albeit amid massive resistance and manipulative misinformation.

In my lifetime and throughout history, our country has demonstrated the capacity to endure, even overcome, tremendous loss and pain. Still, when I close my eyes I can see one individual after another jumping from the towers and feel myself worrying over Frank’s fate. We are all in an individual and collective era of grief. So many people have lost so much, recently as well as over many generations. Loss and pain and sorrow are part of life; but so too are goodness and hope.

 This side of 9/11, I still hold Frank deep in my heart. And I yearn for us to recommit ourselves to goodness and hope, knowing full well that evil and darkness exist. It is us—those of us who care, those of us who are willing—who must bring the light, only this time let it be real and meaningful and sustained.

Richard C. Harwood is president and founder of The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation, a nonpartisan, non-profit organization located in Bethesda, Maryland. He is the author of the bestselling book, Stepping Forward: A Positive, Practical Path to Transform Our Communities and Our Lives.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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