Friday, March 9, 2007

Lost Opportunities

How can any of us every forget that day? We all remember just what we were doing when we found out that blatant acts of terrorism had occurred on American soil. I remember watching the second tower fall, and being numbed to the idea that hundreds were dying at that very moment. I look back and realize that a plane was still aloft over Pennsylvania at that time, but it would soon come crashing down as well.

Of all the feelings of horror, sadness, regret, and later, patriotism that I felt that day, one thing disturbed me above all others. Outside of the usual "bad boys" that we expected to celebrate in the streets, most of the nations of the world mourned with us. I remember hearing American patriotic songs being sung in a British accent, and thinking how unique that was. Tony Blair, an ideological opposite of our own President Bush, became an overnight kindred spirit.

I was surprised by the number of non-Americans who cried for us, who expressed genuine sympathy. I can't figure out what went wrong, and how we lost that moment of intense heartfelt grief that other nations felt for us. What happened?

If I had to sum it up in one sentence, it would be that we never really said "Thank you" to anyone. We decided, instead, to be tough, to live up to our reputation as the only superpower, and maybe to refuse any true gestures of compassion.

I've known people like that -- too proud to accept help. Once, living 3000 miles away from the USA, I was at a meeting and brought out a small package of snack crackers -- that kind available at any American convenience store. My friend seated beside me looked with wide eyes, "Where did you get that?" he asked.

"In Texas," I smiled, and quickly offered him one out of my stash -- I had brought back a whole carton of them. His wonder had changed to disappointment.

"No, thanks," he said. "I thought you had bought them here." Even though I repeatedly assured him I would love to share with him, that I had more than I needed, he continued to refuse. Why would he turn down something he obviously wanted? At the time, a long time before September 11, I deduced the reasons my acquaintance had spurned the good gesture:

  • He wanted to get them himself. To acquire a rare delicacy like I was holding (and that we took for granted in the States every day) would have been like climbing the Matterhorn or scoring the winning basket at the buzzer. To take something without that fanfare was anticlimactic.
  • He didn't want to "owe" me. Some people's greatest fear is that they might "owe" someone. I offered the small gift with no strings, but he was sure there must be. Maybe he would have expected some. To take a free gift like that would obligate him to do something for me, and it might be something he didn't want to do, or occur at a time he didn't want to do it. He might even have to say "Thank you!"
  • He had his own idea of how things should be, and did not like alternative outcomes or surprising endings. I was supposed to answer him, "O, the little store just around the corner," and then he could have slipped out during the next break, and bought his own snacks with his own money. He wasn't ready for a scene he had not orchestrated.

In its own strange way, I think those same reasons tell us why American never said "Thank you" to the world. We wanted to take care of it ourselves, we certainly didn't want to "owe" anything to anyone, and we wanted to write the script and the ending. Nothing else would do. We never told them how much we appreciated the sympathy, the tears, the compassion they showed just by wanting to "be there" for us. Rather, we geared up to go after the "axis of evil." The same thing happens to us. We distance ourselves from people when we really need to get closer. There is something to be said for showing our weakness, for letting someone see our tears, and for allowing people who love and respect us to get close to us when we hurt. It's much too easy to be negative, to lash out against what we don't like, and to resent when others don't see things like we see them.

Maybe that's one thing that bothers me about these blogs. I seem to dwell on my own "axes of evil" that threaten my own values and lifestyle. Maybe there are times I just need to look around and say "thank you" to those who have been there for me, just because they liked being around me. Maybe I ought to be grateful to those who disagreed with me, and even found flaws in my own logic and reasoning, but were too polite to point them out in public.

I wonder if five years later or more is too late to say "Thanks for being there. We appreciate your thoughts." We might have more people on our side today if we had shown more gratitude when we should have. I know; we were hurting; we were wrapped up in ourselves; we were out to teach the "bad guys" a lesson. That was okay; everyone understood.

But a simple, verbal gesture of gratitude would have been nice. To anyone that's listening, "Thank you!" Thank you to the British, the Italians, the (gulp) French, the Russians, the Brazilians, the Chinese, the Australians, the Kenyans, the Argentinians, and to everyone else who cried for us on that day. We really meant to say thanks, but things happened. We didn't say "thank you," and maybe that's why we've never heard, "You're Welcome!"

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