The Job We Have Now Been Given
by Jennifer L. Walters
It's springtime and a little over six months after the attacks of September 11. Since then I have flown a number of times. Although I have never been particularly blasé about air travel, my consciousness of the miracle of flight has been altered considerably. Each safe landing seems to be evidence of a hidden grace. Whenever I harbor illusions of being in charge of my life, flying reminds me that I have little control.
During winter and spring breaks, numerous members of the Smith community flew home to loved ones or traveled to far- away places like India or Cuba for interterm courses. Many returned from these trips with stories of a change in consciousness.
Newly aggressive customs agents confiscated the souvenirs of one Smith group. Some students described feeling violated by the "full wanding" they received at airport security points. Others said they always thank the pilot now, when in the past they never gave it a thought.
Recently, I flew with my nine-year-old son. He had not flown in almost a year, and I sensed that my attempts to reassure him about safety fell short.
Images of passenger jets plowing into skyscrapers are still too vivid and frightening. As we boarded the plane, he whispered, "I'm scared." We buckled our seatbelts (he said a prayer and checked the flight safety card) and the plane took off. We played games and looked at the clouds and had an uneventful flight.
Or so I thought.
Later I learned he had been warily studying a man he thought might be Osama bin Laden. He had absorbed enough of the media coverage to carry out his own program of racial profiling. For nearly two hours my son watched for signs that this fellow traveler might be a terrorist. He stopped worrying when the man finally dozed off.
To my shame I knew exactly which passenger he meant. I tried to assuage my conscience by reasoning that, unlike my child, I did not mistake my unconscious bias for information. I never gave the man's presence but a second's thought. But having my attention drawn to the fact that I too scan the outward appearance of fellow passengers for hints of their inner intentions disturbs me. The "new normal" is as morally cluttered as the old, but with some new, very personal, painful twists.
A dean of religious life at a secular institution is a paradox-a wonderful and disturbing paradox. It is one way the institution acknowledges that we grapple with the nearly universal longing to believe that our lives mean something more significant than the sum of our days. Though philosophers, theologians and ordinary folks have characterized life's meanings in varied ways, the urge to tell stories and to try to make sense of things -- especially our failings -- persists.
As someone who embodies paradox on
the campus, I am trying to create more opportunities to reflect
on ambiguity and complexity, to trouble the waters in ways that
can help to bring clarity out of confusion, or where there is
iron-clad belief, new ways of seeing things.
I have been urging students not to forget what they saw and experienced on September 11. It is a life-altering event. It has already altered me in ways I did not expect and do not welcome. But we have an opportunity to grapple with some of the more difficult moral and ethical questions of our day. There are times when events that first appear to have shattered your truth are later discovered to have shattered your illusions. I think discovering the difference is the hardest -- and most interesting -- job we have.
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