911 Stories of Hope and Healing: The Best of Us
Homily offered Sept 10, 2017
© Rev Susan A Moran
Two things about 911 stand out for me this year. One is that it began the long and terrible trip this country has taken towards a hyperactive nationalism and increased xenophobia. The overt racism that recent years have exposed is not new, but 911 exacerbated it.
Second, there are thousands of stories that are like the ones Jane told. These stories teach us that people really want to be kind and generous and brave. People really want to be helpful, reliable and devoted to causes larger than themselves. We all want to be part of something that gives us meaning and hope. I know that’s why I’m here, and I hope it’s one of the reasons you are here as well.
Noted author Sebastian Junger takes up the theme of community in his book Tribe. He reports: “NYC’s suicide rate dropped by around 20% in the six months following , the murder rate dropped by 40%, and pharmacists saw no increase in the number of first time patients filling prescriptions for anti-anxiety and antidepressant medication. Furthermore, vets who were being treated for PTSD at the VA experienced a significant drop in their symptoms in the months after the 911 attacks. (Tribe, p 116)
This data turns up all over the world during times of war. Many people who lived through the bombing in London and Dresden during ww2, as well as Bosnians who survived the long civil war in Sarajevo, all reported missing the acute sense of needing one another, and being part of something larger than oneself.
Junger tells us that “the beauty and tragedy of the modern world is that it eliminates many situations that require people to demonstrate a commitment to the common good.” (ibid, p. 59)
911 offered us that situation, and the commitment to the common good is exactly what happened. As one of the people saved in the boat rescue of 911 said, “It was a day that was supposed to tear America apart but instead brought Americans together. It was a day that brought out the best in many people.”
No one wants another 911, here or anywhere. But human beings must evolve quickly to learn how to come together, how to bring out the best in each other, and stay true to our values and morals every day, even if planes are not flying into skyscrapers. We have the raw material necessary. There exists a goodness within and among people that is alive and well and ready for action. How else to explain the number of rescues of people trapped by the flooding in Houston, by other citizens, rather than official rescue teams? How else to explain the opening of stores and religious institutions and private homes to people currently homeless? How else to explain the fund created by a local couple for our sister city, Rockport Texas, that has exceeded its $5000 goal by over $45,000!
How do we remember our goodness? How do we remind ourselves of our basic morality? In Tribe, Junger wondered about the evolutionary basis for moral behavior. Using research by Christopher Boehm, Junger tells us that group pressure is the foundation for good behavior. “Not only are bad actions punished, but good actions are rewarded. When a person does something for another person—a prosocial act, as it’s called—they are rewarded not only by group approval but also by an increase of dopamine and other pleasurable hormones in their blood. Group cooperation triggers higher levels of oxytocin,… which promotes everything from breast feeding in women to higher levels of trust and group bonding in men.” (p. 27)
How do we keep cooperation alive when the hunter/gatherer tribal group has morphed into millions of people, all but a handful of whom are strangers?
When I was in Maine this summer, I was walking along the west shore road and saw a great stand of Queen Anne’s Lace. This is one of my favorite wild flowers and I thought about getting my scissors so I could cut the flowers and bring them home. But then I thought of my beloved community members who lived on this road and passed this stand most days: Peggy and Arnold and Nat and Peg, Shona and Alex, John and Judy, and Abby and Carolina, and about 20 other people I could name, and envision, would probably miss the queen anne’s lace if it were gone. I didn’t take any of the flowers and kept enjoying seeing them whenever I walked by.
But what if I were a stranger to the west shore road? What if I didn’t know the people who lived on the road? Would I have felt at ease cutting the flowers? What about in Rockport? It is a lot bigger than my summer community and I don’t know most of the people who live here. If I saw a stand of wildflowers on Granite Street, would I pick them for my dining room or leave them? At what point do we stop caring about other people’s feelings? We wouldn’t leave trash in our own backyards yet so many of us feel completely at ease in leaving trash on the beaches.
When thousands of people needed to cross the East and Harlem rivers that encircle New York, the boat owners didn’t need to know them to offer care and safety. Certainly the Canadians in Newfoundland didn’t know the thousands of folks now trapped in their towns.
If humans are capable of the largest boat lift in history, and overwhelming hospitality to strangers, what can’t we accomplish?
Bringing the numbers closer to home, there are about 100 members here at the UUSR. Can we care about each one? Can we remember our principles of respect, inclusion, democracy and acceptance?
The Unitarian Universalists believe that everyone present is called to minister. As James Luther Adams said many years ago, we are a prophethood and priesthood of believers. I may be the professional parish minister, but you are all ministers too. And watching you minister to each other – and to me, has taught me more about ministry than any class or seminar.
This anniversary tends to bring only sad stories to my mind and I am so grateful that Jane brought stories of hope and healing. Let us do that for one another—and for those who aren’t our best friends or neighbors. Let us be good and decent and generous because we can. And let us hold others to this same standard of humanity.
Amen and Blessed be.