More Perfect

*Reposted from a blog in 2015.

It’s starting to dull in our minds, whether we admit it or not. The further we get from it, the less we grieve. The trauma becomes less acute and transitions mercifully into an annual reminder. There’s still plenty of emotion. It’s not as raw, but it’s still there. In time, that will wane too.

The smoke has cleared. The culprits are dead. The buildings have been rebuilt. It’s not history yet, because the end of it hasn’t played out, somehow. But it’s not current events either.

We understand, now, that we’ve done a lot of things wrong since— like forget the lesson that when you use armies to fight ideas, you usually just end up punching yourself out. We weren’t quite Foreman on the mat in Zaire, but we were close. And it’s still not over.

We all remember where we were when it happened. I was 8,000 miles away from home on my first deployment as a naval officer, much closer in to those who planned and celebrated the attacks then my loved ones who experienced them back home. In the brief time I had before I would lose contact with the outside world, I remember sending an email to my mother, letting her know that I was ok. I gave her a half- hearted message of encouragement that this too would pass, and in time, things would be back to normal.

I was wrong. Things won’t ever be normal again. They were never normal to begin with.

We’ve got a few generations before people who didn’t live through it start to assign meaning to 9/11. It’s hard to imagine one contextualizing airplanes flying into thousand foot towers, killing thousands of people who simply went to work that day. They’ll try though. I won’t be around to see it. But I’ve got some thoughts of my own.

9/11 is not about patriotism for me. It doesn’t fill me with grief as much as it used to either. And I’ve long since unburdened myself from the anger of it all. I’m in a season of reflective distance now. And here’s what I’ve grabbed onto.

Our people, America, didn’t start this journey to be a nation free of pain, suffering or danger. We never intended for us to sidestep the troubles of the world and ensure a utopian existence. We didn’t intend to achieve perfection. Instead, we founded a nation on the basic human desire to be more perfect. And since, like many of the lives of the people that made it, our history has been marked by pain, suffering, injustice and failure. And like so many of us, our country has memories sometimes we cannot easily shake.

Yet we are still here .We are still standing. More inclusive, more productive, more complex than we once were, but still not enough. We are not perfection. A dozen generations later, and we are still striving to be more perfect.

I wasn’t raised with a great sense of faith. Instead, the grinding path my life has taken has led me to it. There’s a story in the New Testament where the Apostle Paul describes a voyage he was taken on as a prisoner. He was on a ship that was caught in a terrible storm with no end in sight. Sometime during the voyage God spoke to Paul, telling him that he and the rest of the crew would survive, but they would have to abandon the ship or they would be lost.

The promise was that they, the crew and passengers would make it through the storm. That was it. Everything else, even the thing that they thought was most important, the ship, wouldn’t survive it.

9/11 was my storm. The peaceful reality that I thought I lived in was my ship. It was the normal I promised my mother we would get back to.

The ship isn’t the promise though. The promise is us.

Looking back at that email that I sent to my mother, I would have worded it differently, knowing what I know now.  I would have told her that this was a disaster and the world we lived in was going to change forever and it may never come back-that we’ll never forget it as long as we live. There will be war and death and hard times ahead. I would tell her the honest truth-all of it. But I would tell her one more thing though. That even though this was never going to be ok, never going to be normal, we would be.

The world is a brutal, unforgiving place. 9/11 will always remind me of that. But it will also remind me of that one profound truth of the human experience. Making a people great is a fools game. We were never promised great. It’s an illusion. Stability is an illusion. It’s fragile and short lived. But the promise of a people striving together to be more perfect is enduring.

We are perfectly imperfect with the spirit to be less so. We always will be. That’s the message of 9/11 that still matters. That’s America for me.

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