Seeing Ourselves

Editor’s note: Five years ago, early on the morning of September 11, 2001, I was riding a bus through Boston, reading a piece recently submitted to Killing the Buddha. I don’t recall much else about the hours and minutes before 8:46 AM that day, but I do remember loving the submission: a strange, beautiful essay about Rapunzel, Helen Keller, and constellations. What could such things possibly have to do with each other? According to the essay’s author, each has something to say about the act, or the art, of seeing. It was the kind of writing that forces you to stop and take stock of the world around you; to consider your own connection to thinking, reading, knowing, dreaming– all those tangential meanings of the simple verb “to see”.

As it happens, that morning I was fresh back from a weekend in New York City, where we KtB editors had just signed a contract to make a book version of this web site. Three nights before, after a day spent celebrating, we took a drunken stroll through Manhattan and I remember craning my neck to look up at the impossible buildings surrounding us and feeling somehow connected to them. There was a universe of industry behind the million darkened windows that gave the city its reflective face, and for the first time, New York publishing contract in hand, I felt part of it. All around me and everywhere above, windows that before seemed impenetrable now looked open and full of possibility.

That’s the kind of “seeing” I was thinking of early on the morning of 9/11/01: the way a change of personal circumstance can make the world seem new. Then my bus stopped, the clock ticked, I wandered by a television, and I saw those same windows shattered. A few days later, a chilling photograph showed faces looking down from the heights I had studied below.

Longtime KtB readers may remember how that photograph became the focus of our response to the attacks of September 11th. To have had a “response” at all now seems absurd. At the time, though, we wrote about the attacks because we felt we had to do something, anything, no matter how trivial. It felt meaningful to try to “see” the event; to understand it in some way other than as, simply and terribly, a very bad day.

We repost our original reflection now, along with that awful image, because it seems worth looking at we saw then through the lens of what we have seen since.

— Peter Manseau

Seeing Ourselves 9-11-01

Seeing Ourselves 9-11-01

When the god Krishna was a boy, he ran home crying one day because his playmates had been teasing him, claiming he ate dirt.

“Well, is it true?” his mother asked. “Did you eat dirt?”

“Oh no,” Krishna answered. “I’d never.”

“I don’t believe you,” his mother said and then pried opened his mouth with her thumb to have a look.

Inside she saw not only a few black bits of earth but what seemed to be all the dirt there ever was. She saw the whole universe, in fact: the stars and the moon and all the planets, spinning behind his teeth. She peered deeper into the darkness and soon could make out the world itself among the numberless planets, and on the world their tiny village and in the village their tiny house. And there, through the window, she saw herself, bending toward her son, marveling at the sight of everything that is.

It scared the hell out of her.

“Is it God’s illusion or my own delusion,” she wondered, “that has led me to believe in the distinctions between myself and the world, this dirt and my son? For my child contains a darkness in which I see all creation and even myself. And in darkness all distinctions fall away.”

Of all the images of last week’s destruction in New York and Washington the photograph above is perhaps closest to the view inside Krishna’s mouth. A whole within a hole: Moments before the building would fall, the soon-to-be-lost stare out from the windows of the burning north tower, pondering a new perspective on reality — as we do now. We look not on a changed world, as has been often said, but with a changed understanding of the world we have known all along.

A mirror is a window made so opaque it reflects all visible light. In the darkness of the image, we see ourselves seeing darkness as if for the first time. Their faces are too distant to read, but the craning of necks is unmistakable and familiar. They are as startled and incredulous as we are. How could they not be? Whether it was God’s illusion or our own delusion that told us otherwise before last Tuesday, now we see clearly that they are us, victims and survivors all, waiting to see what will happen. In darkness all distinctions fall away.

It is crass to make a metaphor of suffering. But, then, in a way, it feels crass to survive. To make a story of loss, to suggest we have anything at all to learn from the facts of September 11, 2001, is to alter the reality of the dead to suit the needs of living. Yet take another look at your crucifix, listen to the stories of the Patriarchs, open your Quran at random — that’s what religion does. That’s what we do. We search for a whole whenever we find a hole in our lives.

Looking again at last Tuesday’s darkness, peering deeper into Krishna’s mouth, we see not just ourselves but the entire world staring back. It would be comforting to believe the international outpouring of sympathy in the wake of the attacks was simply that, but it was also a global craning of necks. What will happen? The world looks out its windows and wonders how, if, when, and where the full weight of the structure will fall.

Yet those of us still standing need not be pulled to rubble by the gravity of rage. Unlike a building, a nation is not bound by physics alone. What we are bound by, however, remains to be seen. Religo, the Latin root of “religion,” means “to bind,” and in this sense the coming conflict will indeed be a religious war. It will be a war that reveals what we are most closely bound to. Whether this proves to be vengeance or justice or hope, the desired ends of our actions will say more about the faith of the nation than that of its enemies, whoever they are.

Through the dark glass of television screens and photographers’ lenses we have seen this week the reality of war as though for the first time, even though we have seen it many times before. Once again we meet the victims and they are everyone and they are us.

When Krishna saw his mother’s confusion at seeing the whole of creation in the hole of his mouth, he allowed illusion again to take hold of her. With no memory of the universal view she had seen, now she saw only a mouthful of dust.

“Krishna, you’ve been eating dirt!” she cried and then reached for her spanking paddle to punish him. She hoped to teach him a lesson he would not forget, yet she herself had already forgotten what she’d learned from the darkness.