Anniversaries are mixed blessings with many meanings. With only 365 days in the year, each date inevitably carries with it uncountable memories for innumerable people -- associations joyous and tragic, transcendent and mundane, world-historical and personal.
And then there are those events so exalting or traumatic that they appropriate their date as a universal eponym: July 4th in the USA, for example, 7 de Setembro in Brazil and 9/11 in every country I've visited in the last decade.
People with birthdays on New Year's Eve or Christmas sometimes say it's a drag to have your party overshadowed and your presents double-counted. How much more ambivalence, then, for a birthday party on a day of national mourning -- how to celebrate while the rest of the country grieves?
Having observed the 9/11 anniversary this week, it's worthwhile to pause and recall the multiple significances of September 11th, the birthdays and anniversaries that remind us of life and hope amidst tragedy. A website, BirthdaySpirit.org, looks to do just that with the slogan, "Celebrating the goodness born on a tragic date."
Of all the good people born on September 11th, one particularly relevant and important for my family is Vinoba Bhave, the first man selected by Gandhi to perform civil disobedience in India's freedom struggle. Beyond being a crucial element in the story of India, Bhave's life marks a momentous event in the history of non-violent action. At the place in central India where Bhave, Gandhi and my own family lived and worked, an interfaith prayer is still recited every morning. We'd all do well to rehearse the same spirit of conciliation each September 11th.
Here's another critical moment in the modern history of peace that bears remembering: on September 11, 1979, the leaders of Egypt, Israel and the United States were at Camp David negotiating a peace treaty that would remain in place until today. Twelve years and two days later, a famous handshake between Arafat and Rabin became an image almost as iconic as the burning Twin Towers would become.
Of course, promises often fail to materialize. There is still no solution in Israel-Palestine. A majority of Egyptians now want their treaty annulled. Independent India has seen frequent outbreaks of religious violence and border wars that have betrayed the best intentions of Gandhi and Bhave. But despite such realities -- or perhaps because of them -- we must look to keep our anniversaries of peace-making as fresh in our minds as the moments of war-mongering that foil them.
The important thing, ultimately, is what we do with anniversaries: how we commemorate them, and how we use them to build a world better than the one that existed on Day Zero. On this 10th anniversary of 9/11, I learned of hundreds of commemorative events and initiatives by spiritual communities, civic action organizations, university entities, not to mention official bodies at all levels of government -- rituals that served not only to mourn the past, but to set a vision for the future we want to see. A great articulation of this spirit is the "Statement of Religious Commitment" put together by Groundswell, Hebrew College, and Religions for Peace .
These expressions seem to have taken on an overwhelmingly positive character, oriented toward the more harmonious world we want to see rather than the brokenness we witnessed on 9/11. The smoke billowing from the World Trade Center will never leave our minds, after all. But we mustn't allow it to cloud our vision of the hope that claims every day.