Fear and Pity in These Times

Friends wonder why I’m so opposed to seeing movies about the September 11 attacks. I wonder too. Of course I have my excuses. For example, I spend too much time on airplanes with my own fears to spend a Friday or Saturday night on Flight 93. I lived for seven years in New York City and now over twenty years in the New York City area, and I have too many fond memories of the World Trade Center to turn it into a Nicholas Cage film even if the movie did get admiring reviews. And I don’t trust television enough to watch a (what was it?) documentary or docu-drama or (what was it?) mini-series or whatever about the Path to 9/11. Then there is I suppose a more private reason — that I’m not ready to watch the catastrophe all over again, as movie or television show. It’s too painful.

In addition to the voices of my current circle asking why not, I hear my high school English teacher reminding me, as I once learned reading Greek tragedies, that there is value in the “catharsis of fear and pity.” As I remember it, we watch the fall of great men, women, and families on the stage because the pity we have for them and the fear of what might happen to them (and does!) is really pity and fear for our own lives, even though we are not great and noble families. We all have tragic flaws, we are all capable of a tragic downfall. So we watch them suffer, instead of us, and fall from grace, even die, and we leave the theater feeling, well, if not good, at least more resigned and content to be members of the human race. In some way they suffer for us, even though it is all make-believe. Or so the theory goes. There but for the grace of God……  My partner and I saw Brokeback Mountain three times (something we never do) because of the cathartic effect. There but for the grace of God….. We never left that movie feeling good, but we needed to keep seeing it, and when we left we felt, if not good, at least better in some way.

So I guess the nation has this need too. But it isn’t the same as watching tragedy happen to someone else. September 11 happened to us. And maybe that is what my reluctance to see the films is all about. The Dali Lama asked, after the attacks, who are we that we create such enemies? I’ve been wrestling with that question since 2001, and am not sure how to answer it, even now five years later. There are times when my answer puts most of the blame on the fact that we are what many in the world call “ugly Americans.” Then there are times when my answer is something like “we are human beings, that’s who we are that create such enemies.” Both answers I guess are partly right and partly wrong. The best answer lies somewhere in the middle: we are human beings with tragic flaws. America’s tragic flaw might come from our sense of superiority over other peoples that contributes to foreign and economic policies that hurt other peoples. Terrorists’ tragic flaws may stem from a sense of hopeless desperation or a misplaced heroism fueled by a desire for revenge. Or, the answer to the Dali Lama’s question may be something altogether different that I haven’t been able to come up with.

I keep hoping my shamanic practice will help ease the dis-ease I have around September 11. I do look upon it as disease. Something from that day poisoned me, stripped me of some of the enthusiasm I had for life, left me feeling vulnerable and closer to death. Disease. I feel weaker. I need healing. I keep hoping my shamanic practice will heal this wound. I have to keep reminding myself that healing is not curing ….always. How often have we told ourselves that? How often have we needed to believe it? If we were ever totally cured, we would probably not be human beings, or we would be living in a paradise without tragedy. But we are human beings and there is and, I suspect, always will be tragedy. We will always be wounded healers. Which is another way I suppose of saying that we will always be shamans and need shamans. And each age produces the shamans it needs. Clarissa Pinkola Estes is right in reminding us that “we are made for these times.”  We carry the right wounds for these times. We suffer the appropriate fear and pity for these times.

Maybe I was wrong about us not being great and noble. Maybe anyone who faces honestly the tragedies of his or her day and tries to come to some kind of understanding about them is great and noble. Or at least is on a great and noble path.  What more can we do than try to understand who we are. Healing is not always curing. Trying to understand is not always understanding. But the effort is noble. There will be results. And maybe, for some, the movies help.