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The Loss of an Authentic Expression of Human Spirit in the Post-9/11 World

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On Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, I was a senior political science and religious studies double major at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. I was anxiously anticipating the completion of my senior year so that I could begin seminary. Still inspired by my previous month's travel to England to attend the World Methodist Council, and having already secured a full academic scholarship for seminary, I was simply counting down the days until graduation.

Then planes crashed into buildings.

The buildings fell.

And the world changed, forever.

Viewing this tragedy as it unfolded on my television screen, my internal wiring said, "Something needs to be done." So, I did what comes naturally for an African American man shaped and nurtured within the African American church context: I put on a suit and tie, left my apartment and headed to the student center. There I found a mass of students gathered in silence, huddled around television screens, struggling desperately to make sense of what they had witnessed.

Next, I headed to the administration building. It just seemed like the next thing I should do. As providence had it, when I arrived at the steps, the doors flew open and the chaplain to the university, Dr. Finnin, emerged. Just leaving a briefing with the university president, his eyes caught mine. I proclaimed, "We need to have a candlelight vigil." He responded, "You plan it!" as he hurried past me in route to his office to console countless students, including several from the New York area.

I immediately began planning, aided by my girlfriend, now wife. "We will need candles, lots of them, some selections from the Gospel choir, words of comfort, and a moment of silence." We spent the remainder of the morning and early afternoon planning and executing. Then suddenly, without notice, I hit a wall. I had sprung into action void of processing what I had seen, or how it made me feel.

Physically and emotionally drained, I sunk into my chair, and stared off into space. After a few moments passed, I regained my strength and thought to myself, "I need to process this." Then, as if handed to me from the balconies of heaven, I sprang to my feet, endowed with new inspiration and vigor and declared, "Journals!" We needed journals! We needed to write our thoughts and in the process release our emotions. As the university community gathered that evening, they did so greeted by bound journals with blank pages readied to serve as canvases for their thoughts.

Fast forward 10 years. Last week, I received a call from the university. The journals, now bound into one collection, had been brought forth from the archives. Their story had captured the imagination of a dynamic, young local reporter, the type you expect to see one day anchoring network news. Conducting a series of interviews upon the campus, she wanted to capture my recollections of that fateful day and the journals it produced.

As I sat and viewed decade-old texts for the first time since their composition, I was gripped by the authentic expression of human spirit rising from the pages. These writing were powerful and captivating, revealing real fear, uncertainty, anger and hope. Then it hit me. Actually, it hit all of us. It was written! Our world has changed a lot since Sept. 11, 2001. But it took my audience with this journal to fully recognize the fact that we largely do not capture the human experience in handwritten form anymore. And that, in and of itself, is a tragedy.

I do not wish to suggest that I am somehow exempt from this critique. I have had to face the grim reality that one of my most personally meaningful writings, a letter to my young children, was composed, not by hand, but by laptop. And I fully recognize the irony of offering such a critique via blog. Yet, in this post-9/11 world, I wonder, "Where do we see the authentic human spirit captured in handwritten glory today? In love letters? In loving notes placed in lunchboxes? Or do we consider our humanity best expressed in tweets, posts and friend requests?"

A recent article in the hip-hop magazine XXL considered the impact of new technologies upon the art form as lyrics once captured in notebooks are now largely captured with Blackberrys, emails and iPads. Rap legend Rakim stated that the handwritten form stands for "consciousness in hip hop" as it's his belief that "the use of a notebook is intrinsically tied to thoughtfulness." The authentic human spirit is not meant to be autocorrected or uniformly formatted with perfect margins. The authentic human spirit is sometimes misspelled, sometimes smudged, sometimes scratched through, yet always beautiful and complex.

And so, there it was, 10 years later, dried ink upon once blank pages presenting the core emotions of life as all appeared so uncertain. And yet, of this we are certain -- it was written. Therefore, we memorialize today, not just the tragic loss of life, but the tragic loss of an authentic expression of human spirit ever since.

Join with me in praying for its resurrection.

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