September 8, 2011
The terrorist attacks of ten years ago left untold scars on the American psyche. When the towers fell, whole worldviews fell with them.
My friend Jim first heard the news when he returned to his office at a small college here in New York after his class on Buddhism. The study of comparative religions had been good to Jim; twenty years in the academic saddle had allowed him and his wife Sarah to buy a big apartment on the Upper West Side before the area became desirable and to give their two children a privileged education. He'd turned 54 the day before; another decade or so of grading papers, updating his syllabi, and grumbling about the administration would bring him a happy retirement — maybe a farmette in the Poconos, where he could grow masses of vegetables and write the book he never had time for before.
He'd majored in religion not in hopes of a career but in hopes of a revelation. He'd been a skeptic from his youth, yet he was drawn to religious ideas; somewhere in that tangle must lie the key to self-discovery.
What he loved was the Big Questions, from the existence of God to the existence of evil to existence after death, and as a teacher he performed more like a lawyer in a courtroom or Socrates in the Agora, confounding every facile argument and prodding his students to think, damn you, think.
His own quest for God was never fulfilled. "Religious systems have a lovely symmetry," he told me years ago, "but I'm not sure they have a referent."
Before grad school and before his marriage, he'd spent a year in a Zen monastery in upstate New York, seeking satori, that flash of enlightenment where the mind, as one master put it, is as clear as a polished mirror. But of course, the more you long for satori, the less likely it will come.
A type of satori hit him that day. In his course on Buddhism he had been discussing the "Four Passing Sights" which would eventually turn the young Siddhartha Gautama into the Enlightened One: an aged person, a diseased person, a corpse, and a peaceful ascetic. He had taken his students into the hallway of the building, where photographs of graduating classes dating back almost a century were displayed. "Look carefully at these faces," he told them. "They're just like you. Work backwards: Class of 2000, 1970, 1940, 1910. Where are these people now? In fact, who were they at all?"
Pleased with the sobering results of his presentation, he returned to the faculty building to find his colleagues huddled around the television in the history chair's office. "This is the end of America as we've known it," she prophesied. "The ceremony of innocence is drowned."
Jim knew no one who worked in the Twin Towers, but many of his former core-curriculum students had taken jobs around Wall Street. Where are they now? Later he learned that the husband of one of them had perished in the collapse.
Like many of us that night, he and his wife lay sleepless. Their children, both away at college, had called to ask if everything was all right with them. "Physically, yes," he told them. "Spiritually, I don't know."
"In all my years of teaching," he confided to me some years ago, "I never painted a pristine picture of religion. From the Book of Joshua to the crusades to the jihads, I felt students needed to reflect on the dark side of religion. It was a contradiction I could not solve, but to me then it was just another intellectual question. I'd became something of a Manichean, thinking that there must be a fixed quantity of evil in the human collective; when it's tamped down in one place, it erupts in another, like vulcanism.
"That night, my uneasy peace with religious violence began to unravel. When my students asked me next class what I thought of the disasters, my rhetorical skills vanished. All I could say was ‘I don't know.'
"That semester was literally horrible for me. The questions that had fascinated me all my life became absurdities. I kept thinking of that line by the devil Nickles in J.B. by Archibald MacLeish — his free-verse play on the Book of Job: ‘If God is God, He is not good. If God is good, He is not God.'
"The only thing that made sense were the syllables of Hindu mystics. At the end of their journey, all they could say about God was ‘Neti, neti' — ‘Not this, not this.' How can you teach a course when all you have is one word?"
Jim quit teaching two years later and bought a half-interest in a neighborhood wine shop. He and Sarah travel to Europe at least once a year, picking up bargains.
Except on rare occasions, he never mentions religion.