When my daughter was very young, it was not uncommon for older adults, in places like church, to engage in a little conversation with her. These adults asked questions that are often asked of small children— about how old she was and what sorts of toys she liked to play with. Sometimes the person asked my daughter about her birthday. Like most children when talking about their birthdays, Margaret’s face would light up and she would answer by sharing her special date, December 7. The person who had asked the question would usually pause and then say something like, “Oh, what a terrible day for a birthday.” I never knew how to respond to this and my daughter was even more perplexed, and distressed. While I was certainly aware of the significance of December 7, Pearl Harbor Day, it was a difficult concept to explain to my young child. Plus, I didn’t have any personal attachment to December 7, 1941, having been born long after the “date which will last in infamy.”
Then September 11, 2001 happened, and I began to know a little more about what those people were talking about when they looked into the bright face of my young daughter and declared that her birthday was a “terrible day.” It’s hard not to respond that way, when a well-known date, a day when it felt like the world was coming apart, is mentioned.
As we approach the fifteen anniversary of September 11, I’m thinking of many things—like where I was when I first learned the news of the attack, how it felt to watch those enormous buildings come down, the unutterable horror at watching people jump from the buildings before they fell, the distress for those covered in ash running through the streets of New York City and the deep, abiding grief of those whose loved ones died. To say that it was a “terrible day” seems such an understatement. I suspect December 7, 1941 felt much the same.
Still, it’s hard not to think of that response to my young daughter, born fifty-five years after the attack on Pearl Harbor and wonder about a different response. Yes, that particular day was profoundly horrible, full of such painful memories, a day that felt like the world was coming apart. Yet, we are still here. The world still existed in which my daughter could be born, and into a country where freedoms are still exercised, people live their lives, moments of grace, hope, charity and faith are still with us.
There should be a place for mourning and grief, for remembering a day that brought such shattering violence. But, we must also remember resilience, strength and hope. And, somehow hold them together.
As Christians, I think it is especially important that we not dwell only on the terrible. After all, if we cannot see beyond suffering and horror, we might never be. We would be stuck on the memories of that terrible Friday, not able to see the Easter that followed, not able to appreciate the empty tomb.
Although the United States is not a Christian country, we Christians have much to offer in times such as these. We don’t just remember Holy Week, and Good Friday, we observe them and try to feel part of them. And, then we enter the joy of Easter, and even with the limits of our understanding, we endeavor to be Easter people, with a hope that goes beyond our imagining.
In the face of national tragedy, we must do something similar. We can remember the pain, but we must not get stuck there, as if remembering is a rite cut off from what follows. In marking difficult days, we may recall the pain, but we must also reflect on the hope and the healing—and know that they are real.
I can’t say that I have a good solution for a better thing to say to a young child born on a day of national tragedy, except to say that I don’t think “Oh, what a terrible day for a birthday” is the best option. Instead of bringing to mind just the terrible, we ought to bring to mind the hope as well, knowing that even in those difficult places, there is new life. That child is proof.