Christmas reveals trivial pursuits

Posted: Dec 20, 2001 12:00 AM
9/11 has changed everything, including the way we look at this Christmas. The daily portraits in The New York Times of lives lost in the attacks reads like a yearbook of sadness and unrealized hopes. The shopping malls, our temples to secular society and altars of conspicuous consumption, are less populated and less prosperous now, while many churches are full of people and richer in hope. Some radio stations broadcast traffic reports on Sunday morning because more cars are on the road, destined for places where their passengers hope to discover ultimate reality. Before 9/11 is consigned to the history books and, like Pearl Harbor, the generation that lived (and died) through it has to explain to succeeding generations what it was like to "be there," perhaps we should consider what differences the terrorist attacks have made. Chief among them must surely be that things which seemed important pre-9/11 are less important, or even trivial now. One definition of the word trivial offers perspective: "of little worth or importance." Oh, the things we consider important, especially in Washington, D.C. and as portrayed in films and on TV: fame, wealth, power (or the presumption of power; the two are not synonymous), position, pleasure, things. Post 9/11, when none of us knows - or can ever know - what today will bring, much less tomorrow, all these pursuits seem so trivial, meaningless and a chasing after wind. No relative of anyone who died in the 9/11 attacks is looking at life today the way he or she did before. Who wouldn't give everything they have to buy back the life of a loved one who was lost? None of the firefighters, police officers and others who escaped with their lives from the World Trade Center or the Pentagon is expressing ingratitude this Christmas. An acquaintance writes to tell of nearly losing her baby daughter to a cancerous tumor. Surgery was successful but she and her husband will view this Christmas and every future Christmas in a different way. A man tells a Washington, D.C. radio talk show host that he called the airlines to get lists of laid-off workers at area airports. He says he's giving them the money he would have spent on presents. His family approves. 9/11 has changed him. Great social transformations occur when large numbers of people individually decide to live differently. It's too early to tell whether people will commit to their families in ways beyond making money and buying stuff, but 9/11 gives us permission to make, or renew such commitments without societal disapproval. One newspaper has reported it's now "in" to be square. Those who always thought square was "in" didn't chase the trends and simply stayed in one spot, waiting for culture to come to its senses and return to the place they never left. In the film "It's A Wonderful Life," the angel tells George Bailey he's been given a gift - the chance to see what the world would have been like had he not lived. What has 9/11 given us this Christmas? In both a secular and religious sense, it has shown us that properly used, power is important if our way of life is to be preserved. It's also shown us that evil exists and must be opposed. To some, that's obvious. To many others, it's a revelation. 9/11 has given us something else. It's reminded us that the best things are small things - a touch, a kind word, an assurance of love, an act of forgiveness, a kindness to a stranger, a trip to visit a someone in a prison or hospital, a note to a lonely person, a visit to a baby in a manger. That baby is a rebuke to the way humans think. His contemporaries wanted a political deliverer. They were offered deliverance from a greater oppressor. They got nothing that they wanted -- but everything that they needed. Cultures, civilizations, leaders and threats change, but the message of Christmas doesn't. It isn't about reindeer, a fat man and material things. It's about a miracle baby and eternal things. As the Christmas card says, "Wise Men Still Seek Him." Post 9/11, more apparently are seeking and that is a valuable gift to all who do.