Opening Our Hearts And Changing Our Minds

The events of September 11 broke open our hearts, creating a moment of shared grief, pain, and admiration for the sacrifice of the rescue workers. The transformative power of the event continues to ripple out. Our lives will never be quite the same. Something has shifted.

What that shift will mean is still unclear. But one thing is clear: it will be how we choose to respond to the attack, not the attack itself, that will define our nation and our relationships around the world for the coming decades.

We might choose to allow the wounding to serve as a portal to a deeper questioning and reassessment. We are open now, in ways we rarely are as a nation. If we can keep our hearts open, and if we can surface fresh opportunities for positive change, we could energize as much impetus for life as the terrorist attack energized for death.

This is a profoundly important juncture for two reasons:

There are enormous dangers at hand: If our responses mirror the violence, disregard for life, and suicidal quality of the attack, we could spark a disintegration into a global holy war of nationalism and terrorism. The repression of civil liberties, here and abroad, in the name of fighting terrorists could cause us to lose the freedoms we hold dear and could provide an excuse to clamp down on dissent worldwide. A scapegoating of people of Islamic faith or Arab heritage could divide us here at home, taking us back from the progress we have made toward mutual respect.

There are profound opportunities as well: Before 9/11, we were in crisis. We were (and are) overheating the Earth's climatic systems, causing massive species extinctions, and poisoning our food, water, soil and our own bodies. We were (and are) increasingly divided among have's and have nots, many American families are deeply in debt, many children continue to live in poverty, and racial divides remain. And we've been in a trance caused by the flood of consumer goodies, that really can't satisfy our souls, but can keep us distracted from creating the sorts of lives, and the sort of world, we want to live in. If 9/11 awakens us from our trance long enough to reassess, it may turn out to be a blessing.

How might that happen? The answer or parts of it could be in each one of us. Holding the questions, refusing to go back to business as usual, may be part of what it will take.

Here are some questions I am holding. Consider bringing these questions to groups you meet with or hold them in your meditations and prayers.

What Now for America?

Seeing the heroics of the fire fighters, police, and rescue workers who sacrificed their lives to help strangers has drawn us together. Feeling the tragic loss to so many who lost loved ones breaks open our hearts. Many report that people are treating each other more thoughtfully, experiencing the fragility and pricelessness of life. We Americans are open to a larger calling now.

What might be the nature of that larger calling? Do you feel new tugs of new callings in your life?

Some interpret the attack on US citizens as a call for further blood shed. The passion for a powerful response can be overwhelming. Many have donated blood or funds to the Red Cross and to the families of the victims.

What are other equally powerful responses that generate life and new possibility rather than death? What have you done? What would you like to do?

Each day, 32,000 children die somewhere in the world, many of them because of poverty. That is about five times the number killed in New York and Washington, DC, but it happens every day. Each of their lives is precious; each child, each victim of the attack, was a unique infinitely valuable human being. Afghanis, having suffered from drought conditions for the last three years, are close to famine. Iraqis, suffering the effects of US bombing and sanctions, have died by the tens of thousands.

Can we comprehend the value of each of the 6,000 plus people who died in New York and Washington, along with the value of each human being around the world who dies unnecessarily - some of whom are dying as a direct result of US policy? If we could comprehend such an enormity, what might we do differently?

The US has been largely immune, within its borders, to acts of terrorism and to retaliation for US attacks elsewhere.

In an increasingly interconnected world, can America thrive while others are suffering humiliation, poverty, and degradation? How willing are we to confront our nation’s role in causing that humiliation, poverty, and degradation? What will happen if we choose not to confront our role?

The United States has been called a "fortress of privilege." Although we are about 5 percent of the population, we use 40 percent of the world's resources

How much of the world's resources are we entitled to? President George Bush senior said at the Earth Summit almost 10 years ago: the American way of life is not up for negotiation. Should it be?

Could Americans thrive in a world in which others had control over their own resources and governance? What would that sort of world be like?

Writer and teacher David Spangler makes a distinction between patriotism and nationalism. Nationalism "is a state of mind that excludes and isolates; it says, 'My country right or wrong, and never mind the rest of the world!'" To be patriotic involvesappreciation for our nation and the freedoms and gifts it offers, he says. "For me it is a blend of the vastness and energy of our land, the spirit of all the races and peoples who live here, the spiritual powers that nurture all humanity, and the spirit of emergence and transformation.  It graces us with the qualities of love, courage, openness, discovery, creativity, tolerance, and freedom, among others.  Its calling, symbolized by the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor, is to hold aloft an illumination of mind, heart, and soul that can reveal the deep values of spirit that live in humanity as a whole."

Back to the first question: What do you think might be the nature of our larger calling as Americans? If you agree with David, how might a new found patriotism find expression?


Fanatical fundamentalism seems to show up as a faction in almost every religious tradition. Most practitioners of most traditions disavow the extremists as contrary to the real teachings of their tradition.

What can people of faith do to maintain the integrity of their own tradition, to uphold its principles against those who would use them to justify bloodshed and repression? Christians might ask themselves what responsibility they have to respond to those who bomb abortion clinics in the name of Christianity, for example.

What can people of faith do acrosstraditions to help each other maintain that integrity?

Has your own spiritual practice deepened during this time? What are some of the insights, tugs at the soul, experiences you’ve had during these weeks?


Women and men seem to respond very differently to threats. Here are a few indicators:

It has long been a truism that people respond to stress with a "fight or flight" response. There was certainly an abundance of the "fight" response after the 9/11 attacks. But it turns out the studies that led to the fight or flight conclusion were conducted largely on male animals. In the last year, researchers have assembled studies dealing with how women and female animals react to stress. They found that although females have some of the same initial "fight or flight" response, females of various species quickly move on toward "tend and befriend." First "tend" -check around and make sure everyone, especially the young, are alright. Then "befriend" - form and strengthen relationships of caring. Researchers speculate that this response is better adapted to caring for young than would either a rapid flight or fight.

How might we better draw on the full repertoire of responses to stress as a society? Would doing so affect the “inevitability of war?” How might we draw on both masculine and feminine strengths in ourselves and in our relationships?

Tom Goldtooth, head of the Indigenous Environmental Network, was telling me during an interview about the response of his grandmother to his expressions of outrage over the injustices he sees. She told him: "You need to go into ceremony. You've got a lot of anger."

"Men can easily lead religions and societies into warfare," he said. "That's why we always have to take direction from our women, from our clan mothers." [Tom Goldtooth's piece will be in the winter issue of YES!]

The confederation of the independent states that formed the United States was a work of brilliance, and it drew heavily on the confederation of the separate nations that made up the Iroquois confederation. One of the things the founders of the US neglected to adopt from the Iroquois was the important role that women played in the confederation. Specifically, the women choose the chiefs and could remove any that acted against the best interests of the people.

How might an interplay of strong feminine characteristic along with strong masculine characteristics affect our capacity to respond to recent events?


I have spoken to a number of people who have felt profoundly challenged by the events of 9/11, and as a result have taken a fresh look at their own work and their own lives.

What if any changes do you see in yourself and in your relationships, work, sense of community?

What do you find more interesting and important? What do now find trivial and unimportant?

Do you feel any new (or renewed) sense of calling?

When you look back on this moment 20 years from now, what story would you like to tell about the part you played in making this a moment of deepening and opening to new possibilities?

(updated 10/8/01)

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