Thinking back today on that unimaginable morning in 2001 I am reminded of how long I sat, glued to the images repeating themselves on the television screen. It seemed the more horrific, more unbelievable the images became the more I had to watch. Like all of us, my mind was reeling, trying to make sense of what had happened and what was going to happen. I sat in our little apartment with my brand new baby and toddler, wondering what was coming for us and how I could possibly keep them safe. And I watched.
It is this watching that is curious to me. We speak of not being able to look away from a train wreck. Why is that? Why when tragedy strikes to do we hunger for the images and stories of suffering, chaos, and grief? I suppose there are many reasons. Like myself on that day, we watch because we feel vulnerable. We want to know what might happen and make a plan (however feeble) to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe should we ever encounter such a scene. It is a way to comfort ourselves in the face of uncertainty. But, more than this, I think we watch because we are keeping vigil. In the best parts of ourselves I believe we yearn to do what Christ has done for us, to become intimately acquainted with another’s grief, to take it into ourselves and know for ourselves what that experience was for each person in each moment, that we might know how to succor, to heal, to mend. That, above all, they might not suffer alone.
I remember watching a woman on The History Channel describing the events of September 11th. She was on the roof of an adjacent office building watching the towers burn. She spoke of the horrible moment she realized that what she was watching fall from the buildings was not just debris, but bodies. These poor souls, trapped and tortured, were flinging themselves from windows to the streets so far below. The woman recounted how someone had later asked her why she would stay and watch such a terrible scene. She replied that she could not leave them. She felt that by staying and witnessing their pain she could let them know in these last, desperate moments that they were not enduring this alone. Hearing this, I cannot help but think of the Savior’s plea to his disciples, “Could ye not watch with me one hour?”.
The terrible events of 9/11, the tsunami’s in Thailand and Japan, hurricane Katrina, the suffering of refugees in war torn lands. We sit, entranced, unable to tear ourselves from the images of suffering, often hoping for new images, more complete stories. We want to take it all in, every last piece. We want to rescue those we watch, but knowing we can’t, we hope to relieve a part of their suffering by suffering with them. We seek to bear their burdens by making those burdens our own. Is this not the gospel of Jesus Christ? Our tiny souls, stretching to accommodate even a part of another’s soul. In similitude of the Savior we seek to offer ourselves, to move ourselves to the background of our own hearts so that there might be room for another to abide there, a place to seek shelter. In these terrible moments we are shaken awake, recalling our most primal nature, that we are members one of another, inseparably bound. The division of miles, cultures, and beliefs are shattered, we see our shared humanity, our connectedness to one another laid bare. Allowing another to infiltrate our souls this way we become most who we are, sharing in what little ways we might the Savior’s moments in Gethsemane. We watch with Him as we watch with one another.