Last fall a friend asked me along to visit the 9/11 memorial downtown. I resisted going there because I thought it would be just too painful.
Of course 9/11 itself was a devastating experience — not only as a New Yorker and as a human being but also because at the time, I was married to an Arab.
The backlash was staggering: menacing anonymous phone calls, police raids and verbal threats from passersby on the streets. Our phone was tapped, we were under constant surveillance, our mail was intercepted. We were subject to random searches, investigations, hours of questioning and false accusations. We were targeted for years.
People I thought were friends were calling and emailing me: “Did he know anything about it? Is he in Al Qaeda?”
Needless to say, after a few choice words from me, they weren’t friends anymore. Even my own family had trouble with it. My brother refused to speak to or even make eye contact with my now-ex-husband after it happened.
They all suddenly forgot that the man I married used to to ask me to step on bugs because he couldn’t bear the thought. Never mind that he was just about the most apolitical person I ever met. They suddenly saw him as a member of a group — a tiny, but newly-visible one — instead of as an individual person, much less one who couldn’t hurt a fly.
To make matters worse, my husband had just signed a lease for a retail business about fifteen blocks north of Ground Zero. We were poised to reap the rewards of a lucrative venture. The grand opening party — complete with a DJ and refreshments — was scheduled for Friday, Sept. 14 of that year. It seemed like a lost cause, and at least for a while, it was.
This was in addition to the bewilderment, shock, dismay and profound loss that everyone else was feeling. Everything suddenly seemed devoid of importance. Nothing mattered in the face of this tragedy. It truly felt apocalyptic at the time.
So it was understandable that I didn’t want to go there. I couldn’t dredge up the memories I worked so hard to tamp down. I had no desire to revisit that time.
At some point, though, I changed my mind. A lovely friend was visiting NYC from rural France, and I hadn’t seen her in a year. She is one of a coterie of friends I love and admire, and so a few of us got our passes and went.
I was pleasantly surprised and very impressed. It is a tasteful, respectful and beautiful memorial. It’s touching and sad, yes, but manages to not force attendees to re-live the horror (the gift shop, however, is a whole other story). The space, although in the midst of a bustling metropolis, is quiet and serene. It fully acknowledges the loss of human life, but it is also a testament to the survival of the human spirit in the face of disaster.
One way this was exemplified was most unexpected.
As we were leaving, we passed a single, small tree enclosed inside a circular fence. Its trunk was trussed up with several rubber bungees. On the cement tiles were nine beautiful bouquets of white roses; each tied up with a ribbon signifying the flag of other countries: Sweden, the UK, Germany, France and others.
We were all curious as to what this tree was and why it was set apart from the others. We went to the information center to find out.
It’s been nicknamed “The Survivor Tree” because it miraculously lived through the destruction. It was a tree like many others in the courtyard of the towers. It was discovered a few days after the attacks: nearly destroyed, its upper branches completely burnt, but its lower trunk was still alive.
City park workers came, uprooted the tree and brought it to a huge, lush, wooded park near my home in the Bronx. The park workers nursed it back to health, propagated four more trees, and will keep propagating more.They tended to it for nearly a decade until it was re-planted at the memorial site.
Upon further inspection, we could make out the gap between the newly-sprouted branches and the older-looking tree bark on the trunk. We realized that it was indeed a testament, like the memorial itself, to survival.
It is often said that nature is our best teacher. In the case of the Survivor Tree, it rings true. We often go through life trying to avoid personal disappointments and hardships — to say nothing of widespread destruction and public tragedy. But when we are confronted with such things, what is the best way to cope?
One of my favorite priests, Franciscan Father Richard Rohr, believes that we should face our adversities head-on. He advocates that we deal with our wounds, call them sacred and learn from them. In emulating the suffering of Christ, the actual wounds we have are our point of entry into transformation.
More often than not, though, this is too difficult to do. It is easier to ignore our wounds by creating distractions for ourselves. Of course, along with that, we prolong the suffering. Instead, he suggests that the only way around is through; we need to delve into the pain in order to transform it.
Like the proverbial caterpillar in the cocoon who thought the world was over, we often suffer through our hardships, thinking there is no future. That was me and most of us in the aftermath of 9/11. We couldn’t see ourselves in the future, fully recovered — butterflies who’d metamorphosed.
The first day of spring is here. What a perfect time to take our personal tragedies, cocoon ourselves in them, as Father Rohr suggests and then let them transform us.
And since 2012 is the Year of Forgiveness for me, I more fully understood how the transformation part plays out. In my particular case with 9/11, I understood on a rational level why we’d sustained the backlash, so that was easy to forgive, but I wasn’t sure I’d done so in a deliberate, fully articulated way. Going to the memorial not only put a much-needed closure to my attachment to the suffering from that time (Principle #4), but also gave me the perfect opportunity to articulate my forgiveness.
This is what else I learned from the Survivor Tree. You were nearly obliterated, yes, but your foundation remained intact. Your leaves were singed, your branches burned; you were nearly buried in ash, but your trunk is still here. There is a strength at the very core of you that can’t be destroyed. That core includes the ability to forgive. Forgiveness is part of survival.
If you’ve ever been burned by anything in the past — and who hasn’t — learn from that tree too. Go somewhere quiet. Let other people take care of you. Rest during the winter, and in the spring, you will be able to grow anew. You can even propagate for the future.
And now, spring is here. Now is the time.
Below is a video interview of the park’s director who helped to rehabilitate the tree: