Friday, September 11, 2015

9/11 as a Symbol

Today is September 11th. Fourteen years ago, I woke up to my mom telling me "something terrible has happened," and when I went to my third-grade classroom, the news footage was on the class's TV. I don't remember much from the next little while, except the fact that 9/11 dominated the news channels for the next few weeks.

I think we all struggle to understand 9/11's meaning. Though we know who did it and for what reasons, we still long to know: why? Why did it happen? How does this ultimate tragedy fit in our picture of the world? Though not sufficient to solve that riddle once and for all, I'll try to help answer the question in this post. Specifically, I'll use the writings of psychologist James Hillman to show how 9/11 manifests ancient and long-established archetypal themes. 9/11 isn't a meaningless tragedy--it "shows forth" symbols that have existed since that dawn of time, and, knowing this, we can understand what good can spring and has sprung from its ashes for our culture.

I do this with the utmost respect for the event's solemnity and the lives of those who died there. By re-interpreting it, I don't mean to disrespect them; I want to instead show at least part of what those deaths could mean.

From the dawn of human history, mankind has built towers. In ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, towers like the ziggurat and the pyramid were representations of "the cosmic mountain," symbols of the human desire to reconnect with heaven on earth. The biblical Book of Genesis, however, warns that these attempts at architectural transcendence are too literal--those who built the Tower of Babel thought that heaven could be reached by their own effort, that only a literal tower made of literal stone could get them high enough to know God. Let's then read the confusion of languages at Babel less as a punishment than as a mercy. God confused their languages to spare them the suffering that inevitably comes from reaching above the mark. Instead of climbing so high on the ladder that you fall, God confused them so they could return to the streets and soil of everyday life. Instead of climbing above the common, God tells us to find Him in it. Immanence takes the place of transcendence. Variety replaces hegemony.

Though likening 9/11 to the Tower of Babel may sound offensive, that comparison can help us understand the deeper meaning of the tragedy. It's a fact that western society tends toward idealizing unity, often to unhealthy levels. James Hillman compares this point to the Tower of Babel story when he writes:
"If, as Genesis eleven says, unity leads to hubris, then we must be wary of all attempts at unification--unified field theory in physics, single explanations of evolution in biochemistry and biotechnology, one true religion and one way to practice it, one interpretation of Holy Texts, one global economic system, one astrophysical explanation of the origins of the cosmos, one definition of democracy or of justice, and above all, one system of measurement by means of numbers for assessing value....Each attempt at unity arises from ambition and results in inflation. The desire for unity expresses the latent hubris of rational anthropocentrism, attempting to conquer with the human mind the powers of the invisible world which the Bible calls 'Heaven.'"
America--with its Manifest Destiny and its "melting pot"--has been teetering on the ladder of literalized unity and transcendence for centuries. Without saying that God caused the crash Himself, let's say that God tried to bring the good out of this tragedy, as He always does: after 9/11 "those exemplars of the top, the big shots, celebrities, executives, professionals, [and] politicians" became less important; attention returned to the common. Focus turned away from our gaze on progress and ascension and turned toward the beauty and love of the everyday. Says Hillman, "the soul of the city emerged, the soul that inhabits the streets, the public servants, the common gritty language, the down-to-earth gravitas of Mayor Giuliani." With 9/11, at least for a while, we stopped climbing. We came together as a people--not through literalized ascension, but by our ties to each other as family, friends, and citizens.

There was fear, of course, and anger. But disorientation and a desire for retribution always follow a "fall." Take the famous "fall of Adam," for instance--when Adam ate the fruit, he blamed Eve, and Eve blamed the serpent. This passing of blame manifests our longing for some kind of explanation, an existential security that would prevent us from further falls. So no wonder the angst after 9/11 turned into vengeful xenophobia--the fall disoriented us, and we turned our confusion into spite for those who brought that angst upon us.

But there is a better way. Because it still lingers in our memory, let's commit to keep remembering 9/11. Let's see Ground Zero as a "wound" in our collective psyche, one that opens up new ways of being. 

Says Hillman,
"A wound is a break through the surface, below superficiality. It is an opening of heightened sensitivity, like an eye that looks and an ear that listens differently, less blithely, more acutely, and like a mouth that speaks the language of vulnerability. The wound at Ground Zero has opened into the depths below usual life."
9/11--though a tragedy--functions as a call to the common, a way by which the luster of everyday life can show through. Wounds check our inflated ambition; they remind us of our limitations and our humanity. So let's make sure the scar in New York never fully heals. While "Ground Zero" means the site of an explosive tragedy, another of its definitions is "the starting point or base for some activity." From that perspective, 9/11 is a purging of our over-ambitious ascensionism; it burns up our transcendent fantasies and gets us to start anew, close to the ground. For, says Hillman, "the devastated earth in the depths of 'lower' Manhattan is the zero Ground of Possibility..."

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