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Shifted Personal Priorities Create National Identity Crisis

9 November 2001

For many of us, a vague dissatisfaction separate from terrorism or grief has settled in. Without a doubt, most Americans are still recovering from the concussive events that have taken place since the morning of Sept. 11.

Nevertheless, facets of our troubled thoughts seem a separate issue. Like branches on the same evolutionary tree, they're different beasts that share a similar ancestry. With all that has happened, many of us have sought to strip away the unnecessary layers of our lives in a search for the essential. Somewhere, beneath the padding and the artifice, is the person whom we wish to be, the one who finds contentment in the smaller proceedings of existence.

However, that search somehow seems in direct opposition to our government's persistent pleas for us to keep shopping so as to prevent terrorist acts from altering our lifestyle. The truth is, in many ways we want to change. For most of us, Sept. 11 was the biggest shared tragedy we've ever experienced. Why shouldn't it awaken us to wrong-headed tenets we held as truth before?

No offense to our sagging economy, but before our collective loss, many of us worked hard at our jobs and spent wildly outside of them, convinced, somehow, that the purchase of fancy objects would equate to happiness. This, we have learned, is not necessarily so. Consumption can augment but does not create happiness. Happiness comes from elsewhere.

Before, we sought to buy houses and cars loaded with amenities, small fortresses that enabled us to ignore the outside world. We believed, consciously or unconsciously, that every man, or at least every family, was an island. Our islands now brush against the shore.

More than disposable wealth, we now seek our own versions of spiritual contentedness, and that has little to do with spending and everything to do with the interactions we share daily, the people we meet and the communities in which we live and travel.

In truth, after what has occurred, we would like everyone we interact with to be more humane and decent, more giving and polite. But in cities, kids continue to kill one another while the cashier at your local gas station still doesn't look at you when he slides your change through the slot in the scratched bullet-proof barrier.

Without a doubt, America is worth defending. It is an exhilarating, beautiful country stocked with similar citizens. But it is also hard to deny that, at least in some quarters, the dream has gotten away from us.

Maybe when businesses dismissed lifetime employees to increase profit, we became a country of cynics. Maybe an innumerable combination of events altered our way of thinking. No matter; at some point a few decades back, we began to care less about our neighbors and whether they thought us rude or ruthless or arrogant.

Therefore, we are treated as we treat others, and a few mutually horrific events can't wash that away. We have lived lives insulated from others by cushy objects. We have often chosen material goods over daily experience, cynicism over hope. These are hard things to defend.

So a new and distinct sadness gnaws at us even as we work to control our apprehensions. When the government urges Americans to maintain our lifestyles, we hesitate. We aren't exactly sure that we should. Maybe a fragment of our new sadness extends from the fact that as the events of Sept. 11 grow more distant, people are falling into old patterns, and those don't feel right anymore.

In fact, maybe we are a country that should seek a little change.

Jonathon Fuqua.
Published in the Baltimore Sun.
2001, The Baltimore Sun.

Index page on Response to attacks in US


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