Horrible days don’t usually start out as horrible days. As we woke up and went to work and got the kids off to school or got in our cars here in America, September 11th, 2001 was just another ordinary day to us — until it wasn’t.

Soon, all hell would break loose, and we would face the one of the most catastrophic days in our history. For those who didn’t live through it, there’s no way to accurately describe the immediate existential free fall; the urgency and the chaos and the terror of those first moments and the hours that followed.

Nothing felt secure. No place felt safe. No one was immune to the shaking. No one was insulated from the grieving. So many memories are burned into my brain about those first days; unthinkable images I’ll never get out of my head, paralyzing waves of fear I’ve never experienced, a heaviness that I have felt rarely since.

But I remember more about that time too: I remember America being its best self.

I remember the swift counterpunch of goodness that arrived almost instantaneously. I remember people’s staggering courage. I remember their counterintuitive selflessness. I remember a unity that transcended politics. I remember a kindness that bridged religious traditions. I remember a defiant, expansive love standing stridently in the face of the hatred of a few.
I remember humanity showing itself in breathtaking ways.

A mantra rose up in those days: “Never forget.”

I suppose that meant different things to different people: For some it was declaration to remember the people who died and the lives that were squandered and the legacy they had left. For some it was a prayer to the heavens, a commitment to live fully from a place of benevolence. For some it was a patriotic pledge of loyalty to and love of country. For some it was a promise not to lose sight of all they had seen and experienced, about how beautiful people can be.

As I look at this version of America seventeen years later, it seems as though we’ve broken our promises, whether to God or country or survivors or ourselves. We’ve forgotten all that we learned on that horrible day in September.

We’ve forgotten how dependent we are on one another, how connected we all are, how tethered to each other’s lives we are, despite the surface differences. We’ve forgotten that in the end, a life in front of us in peril is a life that deserves our attention, a life we’re charged with saving.

We’ve forgotten how difficult and painful a path every person is walking, and how pointless it is to try and make that path more difficult and painful for them. We’ve forgotten how fragile and fleeting and priceless this life is, and how wasteful it is to spend a moment of it with contempt for strangers.

This is why the grief feels amplified on this September 11th: because of all the promises we’ve broken and all the forgetting we’ve done.

September 11th, 2001 was fully horrible, but we woke up that day too. We saw ourselves clearly. We saw through the walls and the barriers of created divisions, past the chasms and gaps of surface difference. We stopped the petty bullshit of partisanism and tribalism and territorialism, and we realized our oneness. We caught a glimpse of what America can be when it finds unity in diversity.

That’s what I wish we would have never forgotten in the seventeen years since that horrible day in September. That day we learned to cherish life; to love people fully, to live with open-handed gratitude, to move quickly toward someone in pain, to not withhold compassion, to see the best in people, to care for one another as our own.

May we not need another horrible day to remember that again, America.

John Pavlovitz

Lee Matz

The original version of this Op Ed was published on johnpavlovitz.com

John Pavlovitz launched an online ministry to help connect people who want community, encouragement, and to grow spiritually. Individuals who want to support his work can sponsor his mission on Patreon, and help the very real pastoral missionary expand its impact in the world.