The days of man are as grass
He flourishes as a flower in the field
The wind passes over it and it is gone
And no one can recognize where it grew.
Reading these words in the Yom Kippur service last week, a great chill came over me. The thought is hardly new. Most 6-year-olds already understand the bare facts. But day after day, we have been looking at the pictures and absorbing the life stories of young men and women passed over by the wind and removed forever from their place, leaving behind families, friends, grief everywhere. Our papers have relentlessly honored the dead in all their particularities. Perhaps in other centuries, when death was more common and loss of beloved ones expected, people were better protected against the shock we are experiencing. Today, when it is rare that a father of a 2-year-old dies or a recently engaged young woman is carried off, we look at this carnage and feel afraid. We read these stories with empathy and caring, but that’s not all: We are each reminded in our bones how “fleeting is breath,” how little control we have, how fragile our bodies, how random our fates. It is this we are taking in with our morning coffee.
We hear of the man who stopped to buy a Madonna CD and therefore missed the elevator that would have taken him to his death on the 83rd floor. We hear of the man at Cantor Fitzgerald who wasn’t at his desk because he was taking his son to his first day at big-boy school. We know that someone hurried and arrived early at work, and someone else had a bad cold and took the day off-and that these small matters made the difference between life and death. It could paralyze a person, this recognition that turning left on Broadway would bring you safely to your destination, but turning right on Amsterdam would put you in the path of a truck. How to move when the result of any one decision could be deadly? Once again, we are confronted with our profound inability to protect ourselves.
It is this truth that is making people rush off to buy gas masks that will undoubtedly prove useless in a real chemical cloud. It is this truth that is making some talk of leaving the city for quieter pastures and causing others to purchase cases of bottled water. This is a time for magic, the more primitive the better: If I use a blue toothbrush, I will be safe. If I am kind to my nasty uncle, I will be rewarded with a long life. If I implore my God, he will keep me from harm. This is also a time when most of us understand that special pleading will get us nowhere. The wind comes and goes and new life grows, covering the spaces left behind. We don’t want to think in terms of eternity, time, history, the tiny self falling from the huge building, plunging toward extinction. But now we can’t avoid it.
We know about private cancers that begin in chemical errors. We know that age will take us all in proper order. But under ordinary circumstances, we can deny such knowledge. We can each assume a mantle of immortality as we go about our days. This mantle develops a few holes as we enter middle age, but it still covers the soul. Our own end is accepted as a fact but considered unlikely-not now, not soon, not ever. For most of us, it is not considered at all.
But now our healthy, normal denial (not to mention our self-importance) has been mocked; the curtains have been ripped away. The self we spend so much time nursing, examining,
attaching to others, stroking and insuring, reassuring, we see
today as mist, cloud, dust, nothing. How do we accept the shortness, the unfairness, the randomness of death, our own death?
This is the subject behind everything New Yorkers are talking and writing about now. The Mayor-who would have the rules changed for him, would bend the democracy to his will-is a man who has himself received a very personal death threat from fate. Is he hoping that extending his worldly power will extend his life? Does he see himself as a phoenix rising from the ashes, his body a metaphor for all New York? I would tell him that the wind passes over politicians, too, and that in a hundred years, no one will know just what he did or where he grew. It is better to protect the democratic order of things, which just may last longer than the power of any one man, whomever he may be. “Where are the snows of yesteryear”-a line of poetry from a man who narrowly escaped death on the gallows in the 15th century-will one day apply to the destruction of the World Trade Center as well as the multitudes of human beings lost.
The grief counselors, hoping to blunt the ravages of loss, are moving among the survivors, meeting in lobbies and offices. It is as if they are trying to dry up the East River with rolls of Bounty towels. This trauma is not post-stress, not clinical, though it may become that for some. This trauma pierces through all armor, frightening us the way a child feels listening to sounds in the dark that might be a giant closing in for the kill, or might be Daddy washing dishes in the kitchen.
We feel better when our talk turns to politics. Thank you, Mayoral candidates one and all. We feel better when our generals are locked in cabinet rooms, making plans. But for now, what is called for is bravery. Not the kind that the police and the firefighters showed, which is truly glorious and adds fine plumage to our human story, but rather the more mundane kind of bravery that makes it possible to go to the store, to get on a plane to Chicago, to ride the subway, to plan a vacation, to let your children go to school and your spouse go wherever work requires. We don’t need gas masks or supplies of Cipro. What we need is the courage of the ordinary. The bravery we must carry with us is the kind that absorbs the closeness of death, recognizes its presence among us, but continues living anyway, gradually rebuilding the dikes of our denial back to the days before the flood. We need to learn once again to ignore the occasional signs of death’s presence. This requires a kind of valor, too, an overcoming of panic, a determination to live as fully as possible, taking as much of each day as we can with decency and love and effort-ordinary effort-despite the fact that the smell of death remains among us.