I understand that approach to life. Often it is my approach. I like happy endings, heroes who win, demons who get incinerated in the purity of goodness and light. But there's something wrong with this way of handling disaster, something dishonest, something choking and fake.
On the whole, the National September 11 Memorial and Museum here at Ground Zero does an excellent job of honoring the dead, telling the story of that shattering day more than 16 years ago. My wife Marcia and I agreed on that. Despite that, almost everywhere I turn here I find evidence of our preference for getting past disaster without first comprehending and even embracing the scope and meaning of that disaster. Examples:
-- There's all the fast-forward time-lapse footage of the rebuilding of the site after the Twin Towers had collapsed. Zip, zip, all fixed.
-- There's a female voice on one of the films shown to visitors declaring: "If it weren't for the pain, we wouldn't know what joy was." Really? No, really? I've known lots of joy that did not first require pain. Why in the world does she want to move immediately from pain to joy? Why does she want to rocket through the gloom to the light without recognizing that there are important lessons in that darkness?
-- There's a male voice on one of those films saying: "As the years go by that day becomes less painful, not less important." I know what he's trying to say, and there's even some truth in it, but I wonder how many parents, wives, husbands or children of the dead would say that even today? I know I would not say that about the murder of my nephew on that day. He was a passenger on American Flight No. 11, the first hijacked airliner to smash into the Twin Towers. What I would say, instead, is that as the years go by those of us who loved Karleton become more accommodated to the bitter reality that he is gone. But the large hole his absence has put in our lives is no less painful.
-- Finally there's a video with the voice of an American astronaut who, on 9/11, was flying high over the East Coast and seeing the smoke rising from New York and Washington and maybe even Pennsylvania. He acknowledged how terrible the day was and how painful. But then he couldn't help but telling New Yorkers that their city still looked beautiful to him from way up there. That's what he said. Your city still is lovely. It was one of those astonishingly awkward moments captured in the punchline, "Well, other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?" But it was said on the day of the catastrophe, not a century later on some late night TV joke show.
What is it about us Americans that needs the roses without the thorns, the rainbow without the rain, the resurrection without the crucifixion?
At the nearby privately financed 9/11 Tribute Museum, there's a quote on the wall from Michael Arad, architect of the 9/11 memorial, that I think says well what I'm trying to say here. It says, in part: "At the heart of the site, there's always a sense of loss and absence and a void that cannot be filled." Absence itself, you see, often is a real presence that we must face in some way. And absence never goes away.
The last thing I want us to do is to stay stuck in some dark, malodorous grief. To live fully, we must somehow face our catastrophes and get on with life after them. We must have hope. We must aim for the light at the end of each metaphorical tunnel. All of that is true.
But let's not dismiss what the dark can teach us, what pain and grief have to share. And let's not assume that every family smashed by these terrorist attacks or any of the dozens and dozens and dozens of others since 9/11 has found the sweet spot, achieved that most meaningless of all the meaningless words in our therapeutic culture -- closure.
Closure is a lie, a figment of some pseudo-psychiatrist's one-directional imagination. If I never hear the word closure again either for my family or for any other family, it will be too soon.
When Karleton's plane plowed into the north tower at 8:46 a.m. Eastern time that morning (I watched that moment on video several times here at the museum, watched Karleton perish; same result each time), part of what was left of his 6-foot, 5-inch tall body wound up at the Fresh Kills ("kills" is a Dutch term meaning fresh water) Landfill on Staten Island, where recovery operations sorted through more than 2,300 human remains that eventually were matched to about 700 victims.
My sister and her husband, Karleton's parents, received a small thigh bone from that recovery and identification work, a bone they buried near their North Carolina church after a memorial service.
That interment wasn't closure. Nor did it provide the magic answer to finding light in all this darkness. What it did was to tell us to pay attention to the darkness, both that which enveloped us in our grief and that which led religious zealots to imagine that murdering nearly 3,000 people on 9/11 and thousands more later somehow would usher in the reign of God on earth or make the murderers fit for paradise.
That latter darkness still prowls the Earth, seeking converts. We will be ineffective at stopping all those conversions if we fail to recognize how deep that religious darkness is that we call Islamism (because it's an "ism," not the religion Islam itself) and how hard it is to speak a word of hope into that theological and political bleakness.
But it's what we must do. As the poet W. H. Auden wrote in "September 1, 1939," as the world crashed into World War II, we must "show an affirming flame." But we must do it knowing that its chances against the darkness are, at least for now, dishearteningly small, indeed. What gives us hope is just the idea of "at least for now." Given the long history of human violence, may we not be fooling ourselves with that caveat.