The plane crash into the building in New York City yesterday struck close to home - literally.  The building is a hospital at which my wife's baby sister works.   Fortunately she was quickly able to contact my wife that she was okay - she actually works in an adjacent building, and fortunately the level of injury and death was low.

But the nearness of the this tragedy brought back reminders of other tragedies with which we have had connection.  And it made us both realize how interconnected we all are.  Below I will briefly review a few of the previous incidents and offer a brief reflection.

The tragedy with the greatest impact on us occurred ona sunny Tuesday a bit more than 5 years ago.  Shortly after the planes hit the towers, another of my wife's sisters called to tell her that her husband, an law enforcement official who worked in an office in downtown NYC, had called to say he was okay.  But when the towers collapsed we lost all contact with him for more than 5 hours and agonized that he might have been buried in the collapse.  Living as we do in Arlington we were of course directly impacted by the hit on the Pentagon, as roads around the county were closed.  Later I was to find out that my small college had lost 4 in the towers of which I knew 3, and I slightly knew one who died in the Pentagon.   We knew others who had survived both events and in my political activities in Pennsylvania I had been in the County, near the site, where the plane hit the ground.

But these were not the only such events.  When the Hyatt in Kansas City collapsed, one of the people badly injured was a woman who had attended the same church my wife attended in Boston while she was at Harvard.  The younger brother of a close friend was coming home for Christmas and was offered the opportunity to catch an earlier connecting flight from London and decline only because he realized his family would not be able to meet him at JFK and if he had to wait in an airport he preferred Heathrow, otherwise he would have died when the earlier plane crashed to the ground in Lockerbie.

As a school teacher any school shooting affects my life, because it will concern our students.  Columbine caused problems for our students who dressed Goth, because some other students unfortunately harrassed them, labelling them as trenchcoat mafia.  The sniper shootings in DC of course affected us all - I had to leave my outside temporary for several days and teach in the auditorium, because there were concerns about safety, we lost half our jv soccer season, we played varsity soccer games on military bases.  The woman from the FBI was shot in the parking facility of the Home Depot at which we shop, only 3-4 miles from our house.  

I could list many more such occasions, with the connections varying in closeness and in impact.  I remember watching people being taken off the roof of a building in Lower Manhattan when it caught on fire. And as a child there was a house to house search for a man who had shot a policeman in a neighboring town who had been tracked to our neighborhood - we were confined to our kitchen while our house was searched, and eventually the man died in a shootout with police less than a mile from our home.

One reason I became a teacher is that I wanted to make a difference in the lives of others.  I had been moving in the direction of service for much of my adult life.  In my 20+ years in data processing I had gone from working in the private sector to working for my local government, in part because I wanted my work to be of more direct benefit to others.  And as I moved toward my current religious orientation of Quaker I was of course shaped by the idea of answering that of God in each person.  Both of these probably contributed to my sense of interconnectedness with others, and perhaps made me more sensitive to this connection at times of tragedy, although I do not think my reactions are necessarily particular to me or my life experiences.

We have often seen the American people at their best when they respond to tragedies.  These might be natural disasters such as the tsumami in the Indian Ocean or many of the multitude of serious earthquakes that have devasted cities around the world.  They may tragedies of violence such as those I have described above.  And it is not just the American people - think of the generosity of the Canadians who opened their homes to Americans stranded by the grounding of planes on 9-11, or of all the people around the world who mourned with us on and shortly after the events of that day.  

We respond this way because it is a part of our basic humanity.  Those who do not respond in such a fashion, who can only see the world in terms of "people like us" and everyone else seem to be a distinct minority, and often, in the words of Oscar Hammerstein II, "they have to be carefully taught" in order to suppress that basic human decency, a decency which draws us out of ourselves and past our fears and prejudices to grieve with others, to offer comfort and sustenance.  

I am teaching politics, campaigns and elections right now.  We look at political ads and analyze them.  I am as are many bothered by how often what we see is intended to divide us for political gain.  It seems contrary to the basic humanity which draws us out of ourselves at times of tragedy.  As a Quaker I am drawn towards non-violence, even as I recognize that the use of force is sometimes tragically necessary, truly the lesser of evils.  Since, as von Clausewitz noted,

is merely the continuation of policy by other means
our use of of such negative approaches in politics is understandable - the result may well be the lesser of evil alternatives, or may be the only way of preventing true evil.  I understand this, even as I am troubled by the implication that I am accepting a Machiavellian justification of the end justifying the means.

I hope I can keep in mind at all times that I am - by common DNA if by nothing else - connected with all others.  And so to end this reflection, I turn to some words written by a 17th century divine.  I will offer in a somewhat broader context than we normally encounter the bestknown words, because it was written in a particular religious context from which it should not be separated, even as we can recognize the universality of its application.  Let me end with words from John Donne, from Meditation XVII
from Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions:

Nunc lento sonitu dicunt, morieris.
Now this bell tolling softly for another, says to me, Thou must die.

Perchance he for whom this bell tolls may be so ill as that he knows not it tolls for him; and perchance I may think myself so much better than I am, as that they who are about me and see my state may have caused it to toll for me, and I know not that. The church is catholic, universal, so are all her actions; all that she does belongs to all. When she baptizes a child, that action concerns me; for that child is thereby connected to that head which is my head too, and ingrafted into the body whereof I am a member. And when she buries a man, that action concerns me: all mankind is of one author and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated. God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God's hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another. As therefore the bell that rings a sermon calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come, so this bell calls us all; but how much more me, who am brought so near the door by this sickness. There was a contention as far as a suit (in which piety and dignity, religion and estimation, were mingled) which of the religious orders should ring to prayers first in the morning; and it was determined that they should ring first that rose earliest. If we understand aright the dignity of this bell that tolls for our evening prayer, we would be glad to make it ours by rising early, in that application, that it might be ours as well as his whose indeed it is. The bell doth toll for him that thinks it doth; and though it intermit again, yet from that minute that that occasion wrought upon him, he is united to God. Who casts not up his eye to the sun when it rises? but who takes off his eye from a comet when that breaks out? Who bends not his ear to any bell which upon any occasion rings? but who can remove it from that bell which is passing a piece of himself out of this world? No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were. Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. Neither can we call this a begging of misery or a borrowing of misery, as though we are not miserable enough of ourselves but must fetch in more from the next house, in taking upon us the misery of our neighbors. Truly it were an excusable covetousness if we did; for affliction is a treasure, and scarce any man hath enough of it. No man hath affliction enough that is not matured and ripened by it, and made fit for God by that affliction. If a man carry treasure in bullion, or in a wedge of gold, and have none coined into current moneys, his treasure will not defray him as he travels. Tribulation is treasure in the nature of it, but it is not current money in the use of it, except we get nearer and nearer our home, heaven, by it. Another man may be sick too, and sick to death, and this affliction may lie in his bowels as gold in a mine and be of no use to him; but this bell that tells me of his affliction digs out and applies that gold to me, if by this consideration of another's dangers I take mine own into contemplation and so secure myself by making my recourse to my God, who is our only security.

Originally posted to teacherken on Thu Oct 12, 2006 at 02:59 AM PDT.

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