Yesterday morning, my husband turned on the History Channel in an attempt to ease his transition from sleep to waking. I watched the TV with half an eye while I was getting ready for pilates — being the notorious morning person that I am, this is a fairly usual delegation of duties in our household, and it suits me just fine.

The show he was watching was about historical disasters of the 20th century: the Titanic, the bridge that turned into an elastic band in high wind, a huge hotel that collapsed in the late 70s and killed over 100 people, etc. Just before I left, they played a clip from the Hindenberg disaster. The frantic newscaster was saying, “This is the worst disaster in the history of mankind,” or something equally histrionic. I’m sure at the time it did seem like the worst disaster ever to occur, and trust me, I believe it.

Even in black and white, the spectacle of that huge blimp in flames is devastating. For the people of that time, it must have symbolized all that was wrong and dangerous about modernization. Now, less than a hundred years later, we calmly watch this “worst disaster” as a temporary diversion before we start our daily lives, marveling at the folly and hubris that made all these great technological achievements crumble, taking so many lives with them.

Watching this, I turned to my husband and said, “How long will it take before September 11 becomes someone else’s history show?” Of course 9/11 can in no way be compared to an engineering mishap of the twentieth century. But it was the terminology that caught my attention, for 9/11 was without a doubt one of, if not the, worst disasters of our time.

For those of us who lived through it, the events of that day will forever be burnt into our memories. Everyone can say, “Where were you when…? Do you remember what you were doing?” And I guarantee that anyone you ask will in fact be able to recount every minute of that day, whether they were actually in Manhattan or just waking up out here on the West Coast.

Subsequent generations will hear the stories of 9/11, yes. They will know its impact on our country, both politically and emotionally. They will read about it in their history books, and probably even do reports on it for social studies class. But will they know that sense of fear and helplessness, or grasp how deeply those events affected our country’s psyche? Will they really get how it felt to be there: that knot in your stomach, the sick disbelief that even ten or twelve straight hours of news coverage did nothing to dispel? I doubt it.

I myself have read many first-hand accounts of Pearl Harbor. I have written many papers on the reasons behind the attack, seen interviews with survivors, been to the memorial, and cried as I watched the amazing footage taken from the cockpit of one of the planes. I can safely say that I understand the events of that day fairly well, but only in theory, on paper, on the screen. I still don’t know what it felt like to actually be alive at that time, to be able to pinpoint exactly what I was doing when the course of history was interrupted, diverted, ripped apart. Nor am I sure that I would want to.

Point being, world history is similar to personal history, in that the impact of traumatic events must by necessity diminish over time. There is only so long that a person or a nation can bleed before the wound inevitably starts to knit itself back together. It will of course leave behind ugly knots of scar tissue, perhaps even a lifelong disability, one with permanent effects on the future. And it will never, ever be forgotten. But the real trauma of it, that nauseous, knot-in-the-stomach, tied-to-the-TV kind of feeling, simply can’t be sustained forever.

Life continues, imperceptibly at first, then by tens and soon hundreds and thousands of normal, completely forgettable minutes, where your stomach is knot-free and the quotidian rules supreme. Eventually, the real trauma of an event must diminish to the point where waking up no longer feels like a punch to the gut. Perhaps you find that you can go hours, or even days, without thinking about It. At first this makes you feel guilty, but it doesn’t mean you’ve forgotten — no, sorry, that is not an option. It’s just that It no longer terrorizes the very forefront of your mind with every waking and dreaming moment.

So it is with history. Today’s disasters are tomorrow’s history shows, just as the earth-shattering events of two hundred years ago are now chapters in a textbook, or the subject of a movie starring Tom Cruise or Mel Gibson. These events are no less important in our history, just much less immediate.

Even so, it’s almost impossible for me to believe that September 11 will someday be one of those chapters, that the agony it caused can ever diminish with time. But eventually, some day, someone else’s husband will flick on the History Channel in the morning, or late at night, and there it will be.

It seems incomprehensible, I know, but perhaps in the end it is also kind. In my mind, the ability to regain perspective over time is one of our greatest gifts, and something that makes our continued existence — both as individuals and as a society — possible.

Advertisements