The universe, coincidence, and bad guys

One of my friends from business school lost a brother in 9/11.  My friend, his wife, and the rest of his large family started a foundation in their brother’s name.  On Sunday I wore a tee-shirt from one of their fundraisers to go running.  I didn’t have time to shower when I got back, and so, hours later, when I bathed the kids, I was still wearing it.

“Who is the man whose name is on your tee-shirt, Mummy?” asked Grace idly, tracing her fingers through the bubbles in the bath.  I swallowed.  Both she and Whit know in general terms about “when the planes flew into the buildings” but they don’t know more than that.  Were they ready?

“Well,” I began, “Remember how we talked about the day when the planes flew into the buildings?  A friend of mine’s brother was in one of the buildings, and he died that day.”  I paused.  Both Grace and Whit were quiet.

“The pilots flew the plane into the building?”  Grace looked at me.

“Well, no.  The bad guys on the plane took over the cockpit.”

“How?  And what did they do to the pilots, Mummy?”

“I think they used force to get into the cockpit.  And the pilots,” I looked straight at her, hesitating.  “Well, they died.”

Grace’s mouth formed a silent “o” and she looked down at the bathwater.

“Why didn’t your friend’s brother get out of the building, Mummy?”  If Whit were any child I’d have sworn he wasn’t listening, so busy did he seem with the bathtub dinosaur toys.  But clearly he wasn’t missing a word.

“Well, Whit, they couldn’t get out.”

“Do you think they felt it when the plane hit the building?  Did they feel it when the building fell down?’

I was at a loss for words.  How to convey this day, so enormous, so terrifying, in a gentle, age-appropriate way?

“I don’t know what they felt, Whit.”  I spoke slowly, trying for gentleness.  “I wasn’t there.”

The conversation went on to talk about security at airports, and how things are much different now than they were before 9/11.  Grace and Whit wanted to know a lot about the bad guys, who they were, how it is that they killed themselves for their countries.  I had to be very clear that these people were not heroes, despite this act.  Based on their very specific questions, and the way that they wouldn’t let the topic go, I decided that they deserved real answers.  By the time we were finished talking, both kids were dry and in their pjs.  This was a long, detailed conversation, and left us – as most conversations in my life do – with more questions than answers.  What is it to really hate a people, when you don’t know them?  How do you life with intense fear, as the people on the planes must have felt?  Who was Osama Bin Laden and why was he so angry?  What does it feel like to feel the ground beneath you fall out, and to tumble to the ground?

Grace wanted to pray for the people who died in 9/11 when she was going to sleep, and so we did.  And I woke up to the news that he had been killed.  In my Monday morning oblivion I didn’t even realize the coincidence (or not) until Kathryn emailed me to point it out.  And since that moment goosebumps have buzzed up and down my arms and neck.  A reminder of the great river of humanity, both seen and unseen, that we all travel in.  Everything is connected.

All day long I’ve been reading messages, tweets, blog posts, and articles about Bin Laden’s death.  This morning, driving from school to the grocery store, I listened to NPR reporting on the massive celebratory throngs that has sprung up all over America last night.  They played a recording of BU students belting out America the Beautiful.  They compared the mood of the crowds to the emotional, triumphant reaction to the Red Sox winning the World. Series.  What?

And all day, I’ve felt ambivalent about this.  I’m not unhappy that Bin Laden is gone, though I am wary about celebrating an active murder no matter what the reasons behind it.  But I think my ambivalence is more general: why are we celebrating anything about an event, and an ongoing situation, so full of pain, misunderstanding, and sorrow?  While I can definitely see the justice in this outcome,  I feel sad, not joyful, not proud, about this reminder that our world is most certainly not in a place of compassion and empathy.

Last night, as I tucked Grace into bed, she asked me again about the planes and the buildings.  It was clear from her tone that she had been thinking about it all day.  “What happened to the bad guy?” she asked me, and the hairs on my arms stood up.  I looked straight at her, deciding in that moment she deserved, again, a real answer.

“Well, Gracie, he actually died yesterday.”  Her eyes widened, the whites glowing in the dark of her room.  “The US military found him and killed him.”

“They did?”  She asked faintly, curling her beloved brown bear more tightly into her chest.



“Well, they wanted to keep America safe and make sure he couldn’t plan anymore attacks.  And I guess they wanted to punish him for having caused so much pain.”

“Oh.” She was quiet.  “Are we supposed to be glad about that, Mummy?” Her voice wavered.

“I don’t know, Grace.”  I hugged her, smelling the shampoo I was her hair with every night, hearing the achingly familiar lullabyes from her CD player.  “I don’t know.”

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  1. Kate
    Posted May 3, 2011 at 4:08 am | Permalink

    captured my ambivalence too–especially with the chants of USA and barbarians at the gate feel of our reaction. so many around the world dislike what the US represents (or has done to them) and this less than gracious reception seems ominous, like one of the signs in the Aeneid of a failing society. Can’t shake the dread…not of a retaliation, but of what we have become these 10 years on. As always, love your writing and to see how you handle discussions. My four year old talks constantly about death (thanks to graphic pre-school lessons about MLK, Abe Lincoln, etc and it’s such a difficult subject for me.

  2. Posted May 3, 2011 at 4:17 am | Permalink

    I so don’t believe in coincidences…what a universal moment this was…this conversation with your children, this almost-forced reflection of the tragedy for you on the day before we found out. And your children…they are obviously going to be gentle and thoughful, like their mother.

  3. joanne
    Posted May 3, 2011 at 7:10 am | Permalink

    Well said. I’ve been feeling as though I’m the only one that felt this way until a guest on Emily Rooney’s show last night (who lost a loved one on 9/11)and now yourself have shared similar points of view. Whew. Nice to know you’re out there.

  4. Posted May 3, 2011 at 7:29 am | Permalink

    “I have never wished a man dead, but I have read some obituaries with great pleasure.” ~Mark Twain

    I think you really brought home the kind of ambivalence a lot of us are feeling about this. I’m greatly relieved, but to celebrate feels like shaky ground for me.

  5. Posted May 3, 2011 at 7:40 am | Permalink

    It is hard to know what to feel at such times…I hesitate to celebrate anyone’s death, especially in the midst of so much sorrow and pain. I am impressed that you gave your children real answers, with both honesty and gentleness. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us.

  6. Posted May 3, 2011 at 8:40 am | Permalink

    I have been feeling uncomfortable as well.

    I had three family members at ground zero that day. We were blessed that all made it out alive, a miracle really. Though I know that justice was served, I am not sure that the big picture has changed at all.

    All of the celebration feels barbaric in a way. A taunting of the bull, so to speak.

    I continue to pray for the families that feel that gaping loss of their loved ones every day. I would rather put my energies toward peace and healing~

  7. Posted May 3, 2011 at 9:06 am | Permalink

    My son, whose 23, and I were just talking yesterday about our own ambivalence about the celebrations, the singing. Grace and Whit are lucky to have a mom who answers the tough questions thoughtfully and honestly.

  8. Posted May 3, 2011 at 9:18 am | Permalink

    Wow, Linds. Wow. Just wow.

  9. Posted May 3, 2011 at 9:22 am | Permalink

    A quote that I think will resonate here…

    “I will mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”- Martin Luther King Jr.

  10. Posted May 3, 2011 at 9:28 am | Permalink

    I felt a great deal of relief and gratitude when I heard the news, but I’ll admit, I struggled with the site of the celebrations. I can’t imagine having to explain it to little ones.

  11. Posted May 3, 2011 at 9:33 am | Permalink

    Incredible post. “I don’t know.” Maybe my favorite trio of words ever. And perfectly appropriate in this case. (And in so many cases.)


    Christa Reply:

    I think they are the most beautiful words we can hear… or say!

  12. Posted May 3, 2011 at 9:39 am | Permalink

    Thank you so very much.

    This feels good to me.

    I could never celebrate a death. Especially a death caused on purpose.

    I feel only anxious to celebrate when we heal the pain. And this feels only like more pain. It’s complicated, isn’t it?

    But, thankfully, the world has parents like you, taking on the hard questions. We will look forward, not back. And hope for a tomorrow filled with people who understand that to hate a people they have not yet met is folly. It’s a lack of self reflection.

    One family at a time, one neighborhood, one community…we will ask these questions. And offer hugs.

    Thank you so very much.

  13. Posted May 3, 2011 at 9:50 am | Permalink

    Everything about this post is beautiful and perfect.

  14. Posted May 3, 2011 at 10:25 am | Permalink

    I have had many of the same thoughts swimming in my head since learning the news, but have not actually had time to sit and let them unfurl. It is such a complex thing, that Bin Laden died, and it presents a real challenge when we have to distill the events–and the messages–to our kids. I have found the hoopla a big strange and frightening, though I certainly understand the desire for justice. I only hope that America is, indeed, safer as a result. I guess the jury’s still out…

  15. Posted May 3, 2011 at 10:57 am | Permalink

    Powerful post. You describe the ambivalence perfectly.

  16. Posted May 3, 2011 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

    The difficulties we have in explaining 9/11 to our children just reinforce how nonsensical we adults sometimes make the world.

    Our children can’t imagine why someone would want to kill thousands of innocents. I wish that were the same for most adults. We can learn a lot from the children.

  17. Posted May 3, 2011 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

    A goosebump inducing story Lindsey. What a gift you are giving your little ones by trusting them with an appropriate version of the story and your truth. I have avoided too much facebook, twitter and news time and focused my attention on sending love and compassion into the world. It’s all I can think to do.

  18. Posted May 3, 2011 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

    Wow. What an amazing essay you have just written (take that Dan Jones!!).

    Grace astounds me with her understanding at such a young age. I too am not sure how to feel about this. It doesn’t ever seem right to have someone die, no matter who it is.

  19. Posted May 3, 2011 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

    I am so glad you posted this, Lindsey. I was in a meeting last night at the US Attorney’s office and I think (I hope) I sensed some of Grace’s question in the undercurrents there. To read this, and the comments before mine is heartening. I am glad not to feel alone, of course, but it’s good to know that others are using this story to reflect on what is really important.

    That is one big, big question, Lindsey. Brava to you for answering honestly. I am not sure anyone knows the answer, really.

    Sending out all the good I can, in general, and love to you and those wise little beings you live with…

  20. Posted May 3, 2011 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

    When I heard the news (from my 15yo son no less due to my bubble I choose to live in), I first didn’t believe. But he went on with details and I figured it must be true. I felt nothing at first. Now, like you, I just feel sad. I don’t really care that he is dead because it can never bring back what he took away.

  21. Posted May 3, 2011 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

    And, what a difficult conversation to have. It breaks my heart every time I have to explain to my children how cruel the world can be, how people can be mean, how there are times when they might not be safe. It’s a crime to their innocence.

  22. Posted May 3, 2011 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

    Somehow Grace managed to ask the question aloud that I’ve been asking myself all week. Little wonder, since she has you for a mom. Just reading this, and knowing that I’m not the only one made queasy by dancing in the streets, was incredibly helpful. Thank you Lindsey!

  23. Posted May 3, 2011 at 8:12 pm | Permalink

    This post captures the uncertainty, the gravity, the ache of so many layers of 9/11, the death of Bin Laden, and who we are as people.

  24. Posted May 4, 2011 at 5:44 am | Permalink

    Perfect, Lindsey, perfect.

    My husband had one of those goose bumpy coincidences Sunday afternoon, too. Left us scratching our heads.

  25. Posted May 4, 2011 at 11:37 pm | Permalink

    There is no winning in war. Thank you for sharing your, and Grace’s, voice and sincere questions; the loudest and most strident voices are merely that. Given that we live in an era defined by terror, it serves us to practice presence and loving kindness. Perhaps that might allow us to realize that one cannot kill the Shadow.

    We must find ways to be true to ourselves and at the same time connect with people and ideas that we find utterly incomprehensible—beyond judgment, control and terror arises the possibility of consciousness, integration and harmony. No one, no country, no leader will make this happen; yet it may be in the process of spontaneously organizing itself.

    If Jung was right, then it was our own unconscious Terror that has materialized and met us, in these last ten years, as our “fate.” Our free will, however, leaves open the possibility that we might find the courage to love, even in the face of fear and aggression. What we, the seemingly disempowered, the quiet-voiced, the Grace-ful, too often fail to realize (besides that we are ALL in this together, and not just we Americans) is that there are many of us who see the futility and sadness in endless retribution and in fear-driven existence.

    Changes in consciousness can turn the tide, as leaders inevitably ride dragons of the zeitgeist more than they dictate world events. Thus it truly is up to us. When we are truly conscious, we shall have peace. Let’s cultivate loving kindness (as you do) inside ourselves, between ourselves and amongst all our collective children. What harm can that do?

  26. Martie Sands
    Posted May 5, 2011 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

    Your discussion with your children is so insightful and truthful. It is so important & difficult to be honest and yet try to minimize fear.
    Many of the celebrants were 8-12 years old at the time of 9/11, which means that most of them had heard conversation from their parents and television and were very impressionable at that age. Their reaction now seems to be different from other age groups. I’m not sure what all of this means, just an observation. I, too, struggle with it, but realize that it is a military maneuver to protect the freedom of our country saying “We will not let this happen again.”

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