The rare nights my husband and I have spare time to share, we usually spend it sitting in silence in our living room. He’ll be nursing a beer with his nose in a book, usually on some subject that would bore me to tears, like 20th-century politics, Civil War battles, or American theological history. This is my guy. I sit parked next to him on the couch doing anything—crafting, writing letters, reading something much more fun, binge-watching Netflix—to keep my fidgety body from getting restless. Lawton served five years in the Marine Corps and currently studies as a seminary student at Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University. Right now, it’s just the two of us. But we hope, despite what seems like a scary world out there sometimes, to start a family one day. It’s been hard growing up during the 15 years since 9/11.
As Lawton says, “9/11 is the background of my youth.” He was 14 years old in September 2001 and I was 12. He grew up in Houston and went to a private Christian school. I went to public school outside Dallas.
My world before 9/11 was small. The day after it had been ripped open, I began learning how to grapple with the country’s place—past, present, and future—on the world stage. I had been taught that America was the best place on earth to live, and I just assumed the rest of the world thought we were, too.
Similarly, Lawton grew up in a patriotic community that was generally supportive of the George W. Bush administration. Throughout high school, he supported the war in Iraq.
So it came as a complete shock to him when he started hearing around 2005 and 2006 that the war was going badly and that the national mood was souring. Lawton started reading everything he could get his hands on about the war and foreign policy.
“It kick-started the reorientation of my whole political worldview,” he says. By the time he graduated college in 2009, President Obama was in office, Lawton was joining the Marine Corps, and his political, religious and worldviews had all changed.
You might ask, if Lawton’s views had changed why did he join the military? It’s a question he still struggles to answer succinctly. But if you know my husband, you know it’s not a black and white question and there’s no black and white answer. He wanted to do something worthwhile after college, and serving in the military seemed to be a worthwhile pursuit, even if he didn’t completely support the war. Like most things in life, the conflict was complex.
For my parents, who have lived through the Korean and Vietnam wars and the Cold War, 9/11 was like nothing they’d seen before.
My dad said he had a terrible feeling of unease, because “you had a vague idea that it was terrorists, but you didn’t know exactly who the terrorists were.”
My mom said it was an attack on our way of life, this attack on civilian soil. The hijackers had lived in the U.S. among the rest of us and had used our transportation systems to hurt us. This, my mom said, was one of the most unsettling parts.
My parents believe that since 9/11 the moral fabric of the country has started to unravel. The world is a meaner place than it used to be. Though I can’t see through their eyes what our nation looked like before 9/11, I see it as the day I stopped feeling safe. People are scared and fear begets anger and mistrust, and the vicious cycle drives wedges between people. We know that cycle; we’ve seen it too many times before.
Human conflict is as old as humanity, so why have these last 15 years felt so particularly dark and divided?
When I asked my dad his thoughts about 9/11, he told me to imagine a day when I didn’t turn on the TV, check my phone, or turn on a computer. I closed my eyes and imagined the last time Lawton and I went camping and we spent the entire day hiking a mountain. I was so disconnected from the outside world, but so at peace with my surroundings. It was an amazing day.
Similarly, my dad reminded me, when he was growing up the newspaper and the evening news were their only sources for news.
“We didn’t feel global back then,” he said. “Our lives were our community, our state, and our country. We didn’t look beyond the border. Now we feel like we’re this swirling mass of humanity—it takes a toll when you know everything—it damages you.”
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It’s difficult not to feel a potent reaction to a video of a beheading when you turn on the news at night, or when you see children being trampled by refugees, or child soldiers holding automatic weapons, or innocent people being pulled from the rubble of hospitals, all in your living room.
Add to that equation the internet and its anonymity, which somehow always seems to embolden people to be as hateful and unfeeling as possible, further breeding misunderstanding, which only encourages division.
When I was 14 and my cousin died in car accident, I was terrified. I hadn’t grown up in a religious household, and I had no idea where she was going now that she’d died. I spent years learning, in formal classes in college and on my own, about worlds religions, trying to find one in which I believed. I’m still searching.
But this long quest for a sense of spiritual belonging has given me a perspective that I don’t often find among the people I spend time with in Texas and or the people I knew when Lawton and I lived in North Carolina while he was stationed at Camp Lejeune.
It frustrates me to hear people whom I admire and respect talking disdainfully about people of different races, sexual orientations, and religions. I can’t understand how they can believe that people belong in boxes.
My mother’s father was a Marine and he fought in the Pacific Theater. He spent the entirety of his adult life hating Japanese people. Though my mother doesn’t feel the same way he did, she tells me she can’t possibly understand what her father experienced and she has to respect the the way he was. Similarly, Lawton hears Marines use pejorative language to describe Middle Easterners. How can I criticize them when I will never understand what those servicemen and women experienced at war.
Neither Lawton nor my mom does anything to stop that talk, but that doesn’t mean they condone the behavior; it just means that the issue is complex.
My family may fight over the dinner table about world affairs, and sometimes we do bring each other to tears. We certainly all have differing opinions, but we persist because we know it’s important to talk about. And we have real discussions. And we understand it’s complex.
Choosing sides isn’t the important part, because no matter how similar you are to a group of people, you will never align on all the thousands of moral quandaries we face in life. What’s important is the process: thinking critically, doing your own research, and listening to all sides of a story. It’s about struggling with issues that test the soul, such as war and justice and revenge and hatred and prejudice and love and forgiveness. It’s about being empathetic.
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My husband is a veteran, and like all veterans he had to grapple with the idea that he might have to take someone’s life in service of our country. How, he wondered, would that affect him? Now in seminary he still grapples with questions of the soul. And often, as he studies, he faces the possibility that faith systems only further divide people on difficult issues rather than helping them to meet people where they are.
Despite these circles he’s lived in—the military and seminary—where homogeneity often is expected, Lawton chooses every day to explore the complexity of the world around him. Whether he’s drinking his coffee before he heading to class, or winding down before bed, Lawton is always reading the news—from our local paper, online subscriptions to national papers, and various conservative and liberal news sources.
I see how this Post-9/11 world that favors black and white narratives needs people like my husband. In this world, where people are encouraged to think about the world in the most simplistic way—good versus bad, us versus them—Lawton looks for grays.
He sees that we can’t boil people down into good or bad, and he works every day to learn more and challenge that way of thinking, because he knows that judging someone based on a stereotype is not worthwhile or fair. We have to meet people where they are in their lives. It’s the only way to stop what seems like the endless cycle of misunderstanding. That passion for doing the right thing drove him to be a Marine and now drives him to study history and theology.
On days when I worry what it will be like for Lawton and me to bring a child into this world, I can count on my parents to give me sweet words of comfort. My dad says it’s hard to change the world in the ways we dream we will when we’re young. But mom says bringing a good person into the world and raising it right does change the world. And I’m inclined to believe her.
So today I give thanks. I remember all the people who died 15 years ago and all those who have struggled and loved and lived and died in this world since 9/11. Every day that I see more division and more fear brewing around me, I try to love a little more deeply and push out a little more kindness into the world. It’s really all I can do.