Moments That Wake Us Up

I'm thinking that this is what all of our afflictions, our tragedies, our intermittent sufferings are capable of doing. They grab our attention. They shake us up.
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My entry into the baggy essay that would eventually become my book, The End of Suffering, began with a question from a stranger with a microphone.

It was probably early in February of 2002 when I was first asked how the tragedy of September 11, 2001, had changed America.

The young woman standing before me was a student-reporter, and as she spoke I remember thinking that she was asking that question far too lightly. Her self-consciousness, in retrospect, was what had made her rush, what had made her nearly sing out her question, and probably what had made her smile as she did so.

I live in Columbia, Missouri, and thanks to our famous journalism school at the university here, ours is--safe to say--a modest town pretty much overrun with journalists. We have professors of journalism, newspaper folk from two daily papers and a few weeklies, half a dozen magazines, and a largely giddy cohort of young men and women who are hoping for gainful employment as print or broadcast journalists someday maybe.

Walking onto campus from downtown can feel like running a gauntlet as the annual crop of newcomers try their hands at "doing journalism."

In any case, one crisp February afternoon, a trembling young woman held a microphone to my mouth, asked a disturbing question, and stood waiting for my response.

More precisely, she held the microphone at just about eye level, making it all but impossible for me to see her face as she spoke. Her hand was shaking, and she seemed unsteady in what looked to be her new heels. Her partner--a gangly guy with a sophomore belly beneath a pea-green hooded sweatshirt--wore an orange stocking cap and sported multiple piercings in the one ear I could see; the rest of his face was hidden behind a blinking shoulder-cam, which also appeared to tremble some.

Like I said, it was early in the semester, and this may have been the duo's first attempt at cold-calling a street corner interview, but they had managed to snag me as I hurried back to campus after lunch, and they had opened with a question that--I suddenly realized--no one else had asked me until that minute.

I stopped walking.

I stood, slack-jawed, puzzling how to answer them.

For a few mute seconds, I didn't think of anything to say at all. And then I said something that I don't think I had even suspected until I heard it come out of my mouth.

I had to tilt my head in order to see around the microphone to meet the young woman's eyes, but then I told her that I didn't think the tragedy of September 11 had changed our actual situation much at all; what it did, I supposed, was reveal how deeply mistaken our illusions had been.

The events of that day confronted us with an ongoing reality that most Americans (and me included) had been content to ignore, even if it was also a reality that most folks in the world lived with on a daily basis.

"Hey, that's good," blurted the guy behind the shoulder-cam. He sounded genuinely surprised.

"Yeah, really," said the girl with the microphone, still smiling. "Like a wake-up call."

It was my turn to be surprised.

A wake-up call. Precisely.

Now that I have had the chance to mull these matters with something resembling deliberation, I'm thinking that this is what all of our afflictions, our tragedies, our intermittent sufferings are capable of doing.

They grab our attention.

They shake us up.

By thus rattling the bars of our cages, they shake us more nearly awake.

In this way, our afflictions oblige us to glimpse the roiling reach of what, back in my own college days, we were fond of calling "the human condition."

And they help us to acknowledge the trouble of that condition more directly than we may have done before pain reared up, grabbed us by a tender ear, and bid us to focus on the lesson at hand.

In the case of 9/11, the event and our shock at it have come to illustrate a particularly canny truth offered by the philosopher Simone Weil, whose own life became something of a study in affliction, albeit affliction with a purpose.

Weil wrote: "Affliction compels us to recognize as real what we do not think possible."

I would say that our afflictions import a healthy dose of credence into our incredulity.

Which is one way of saying that they make believers of us.

Our suffering reveals what our illusions more often obscure, keeping actual knowledge at bay. It is a sharp wind that clears the head--or a pit bull locked on a leg to drag us kicking--into a fresh and vivid awareness that we are not in control of our circumstances, that we are not quite whole, that our days are salted with affliction.

They insist that we note how our seasons move through cycles of joy and pain, and that our very lives--not to put too fine a point on it--are fairly (and often unfairly) riddled with death.

If we take care to see this, if we are canny enough to attend to it and faithful enough to lean into it, then the particular ache of that waking can initiate a response that the Greeks were wont to call kenosis--an emptying.

Think of it as an efficacious hollowing.

Duly appreciated, it can lead us into something of a hallowing as well.

This new tilt-of-the-head can lead us into some serious de-centering--vertiginous and transforming moments, in which we see our lives in the context of a terrifying, abysmal emptiness, in which our assumptions are shown to be false, or misleading, or at least incomplete.

If we're lucky, within that emptiness we glimpse an even more appalling view--the abysmal fullness in which we live and move and have our being.

That would be our hallowing.

As one might suppose, it can feel very much like a consolation--having transformed our painful, kenotic emptying into a means to a desirable end.

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