The first time I stood on the edge of the Grand Canyon, my response was, “Yep. That’s big.” Then I promptly slipped on some ice and wrenched my knee. I spent the rest of that brief visit sitting down, slowly doling out peanuts to the ravens. I remember the ravens in a fair amount of detail and have been fascinated with corvidae ever since. The Grand Canyon is still just big.
It isn’t just an animal versus rock thing, either. The Little Colorado River flows through a vertical chasm nearby that gripped me as well. I was impressed by how deep and straight the water has cut through the rock and the narrowness of the channel. It was small, by comparison, but the details captured my imagination.
The Grand Canyon, on the other hand, is simply immense in a way that dwarfs its details. Maybe if I’d had more time and mobility, I could have gotten to know a small piece of it. Maybe then the pressure to have an opinion about the place–and that pressure does exist–could be met with more than a shrug. For now, it simply remains big.
On the morning September 11, 2001, the news changed between the time I got out of the car at work and the time I got to my desk. I listened to the radio long enough to understand that, once again, this was something that was simply big. I could, perhaps, if I listened longer, focus on one small aspect of the whole until it made sense, but the whole was always going to be too large. The details were never going add up to something I would truly understand.
There was a conference room with cable news reception. I didn’t go in. The pictures weren’t going to help, and watching the anchors and guests try to make sense of something that big was only going to make me hate their superficiality.
People drifted out of the room all morning. I don’t know whether they gave up on making it all make sense, or whether they each found their own little details from which to mine meaning. At lunchtime, there were two people left, two I respected for their thoughtfulness. I gently chased them out of there with the suggestion that that much immersion might not be good for them. I suspect they were still trying to find the piece that would make it all make sense.
We haven’t found it yet, nearly ten years later. Those of us who lived through it almost certainly never will. Historians who look back from a distance probably won’t either. Like us, they’ll focus on one detail or another, just as we’ve done with all of these events that are just too big.
In the meantime, however, we have a new event to deal with. In itself, it isn’t very large. A dying man is dead, at the hand of one of the nations he harmed. His influence will not have died with him. But he, himself, is dead, and his death is part of an event that is simply too big for us to handle.
There is, once again, immense pressure to decide how we feel about bin Laden’s death, despite the overwhelming size of the events he set in motion. How we react, each of us, will depend on the details we took away with us in the aftermath of September 11, 2001. It was a crime, a tragedy, a political lever, a moment of deep political insecurity, a blow to our national pride, and much more. Our personal reactions now are informed by at least one of those, but I doubt that any of us can be informed by all of them at once.
As it was on September 11, it is time to give ourselves and each other a little break. We’re all behaving appropriately to our understanding of that immense event and those that followed. We’re all behaving inappropriately to someone else’s.
We can’t ever understand the whole of what has happened to us, but maybe, just for a day or two, we can understand that much and let each other be with our personal, emotional, insufficient reactions. Even those of us who have nothing more intelligent to say than, “This is big.”