Four years ago, on November 9, 2016, my world turned upside down. I woke up to the news that Donald Trump had won the presidency (or at least the electoral college). Hardly anyone in my world had expected this result. I said to my husband in horror, “He won!” — and he bizarrely thought I meant that I was pregnant, that our ten-year-old son had finally triumphed in his wish to have a sibling.
But no, it was not forces of growth and renewal that seemed to be triumphing, but the forces of hatred, greed, selfishness, and intolerance. We all watched as hate crimes increased and walls were reinforced, the “other” was shut out, the shadows grew. Law and reason were powerless against these forces. They grew rampant, like weeds, choking the garden we had thought invulnerable.
It reminded me of another time when my world had crumbled: September 11, 2001. When the Twin Towers fell, I was living close to New York City. I had just visited Manhattan the previous weekend. And the blow struck very near. It hit me in my own heart, as I wrote in this post last New Year’s Day: “What shocked me so deeply was that I realized that the same anger that caused such incredible harm and destruction lived also in me. I was also capable of such rage, such destructiveness.”
I knew at that time that I had to deal with my anger. Holding it in was not the answer. It was crippling me and making me sick. But I did not know how to face it, without unleashing that destructive force.
Destiny stepped in and brought me teachers. What happened to me in the fifteen years between 9/11 and 11/9?
I got married.
I had a child.
I went to work in a community taking care of adults with special needs.
What I had to learn, it seemed, was how to care for the vulnerable. This is the basis of every moral teaching, our universal religion. Give alms to the poor. Care for the widow, the orphan, the foreigner. Do not harm living beings.
As the Dalai Lama teaches us, “Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.”
For without them, when we harm vulnerable human beings, we create monsters.
It was not easy for me to learn this. It was not easy to care for others, when I had been damaged in my own core. It was hard to face the way that damage spilled out and hurt the people I was responsible for, and not to turn away and deny everything, blame the other, close my eyes. It was so difficult that at times I thought I could not bear it.
But the voiceless ones, the ones who depended on me to understand them and to speak for them, were calling to me. They were asking for help. They needed me, in order to survive. And for their sake, I said yes.
I let down my walls, my pride. I got help. I opened my own vulnerable self, to another, many others. I admitted that I could not rebuild my shattered world all alone. And slowly, through trials and setbacks, a new world began to rise.
Today, I feel as though the world has turned right side up again. Some wrongness has been righted, and there is great joy and relief.
But there is also great danger and great responsibility. The blows will come again. They will only get stronger. They will batter us to pieces unless we build indestructible walls — not of hatred, but of love. They are calling to us from the dark heart of the damaged, abused, vulnerable ones, saying, “Why did you not protect ME?”
How can we face this? And yet we must.
I think I see a clue in this: 9 and 11 are both prime numbers, only divisible by themselves, and one.
Each of us is a one, indivisible. But we have to also resonate with the many, to let ourselves be divided and free. We can’t close ourselves off in oneness, in the selfish self, nursing former hurts and refusing to be healed, fearing the destruction of our familiar world. For me, that was the lesson of 9/11 and 11/9, of the journey through the mirror and back again.
I wonder where it will take us next?