New York City’s Emergency Medical Services received 6,406 medical 911 calls yesterday. It was the highest volume ever recorded in the city, surpassing the record that had been set on September 11, 2001. Once again, New York has become the epicenter of a global crisis. Although this time of Coronavirus is different. Like so many New Yorkers, I have been thinking about a time when we were reminded of our interdependence, our fragility and of our collective strength — and what tough lessons we can apply today.
A day or two after the tragic terror attacks in 2001, I found myself sitting in the majestic St. Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue with 2,000 other New Yorkers gathering to seek wisdom, quiet and solace together, regardless of their practice. On the altar stood several religious leaders from the Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths, including the charismatic Reverend Forbes of the justice-oriented Riverside Church. He grieved with us: for those who were lost, for the families impacted, and for our entire city, recognizing the shock of events, and beseeching us not to lose hope.
The reverend went on to add that he was glad to have known suffering in his life, “for it prepares the soul for hard times.” He continued, “Be not afraid…We’ve got to shake the fear that is so natural for this time. I think that it has been said that there are some things we ought to fear and fear in that regard is a gift. But paralyzing fear in the face of this disaster will block us from the transformation we need and the healing we pray for.”
Then he offered the congregation an image I will never forget.
“The body knows how to heal itself,” he reminded us. “New York!” he shouted, his thundering voice seemingly directed at each of us as if we individually held within us the city’s entirety. “Our skyline has lost some teeth, but the body is strong… there will be a smile again.”
In under two minutes, the reverend had recognized our pain and encouraged us to muster strength and hope. We had lost more than 3,000 souls along with those two front teeth, but all of us together, and each of us individually, had the chance for renewal. For rebirth.
Moved by these words, a large man sitting in the middle of that packed church rose slowly, singularly: a tree reaching upward. I felt a collective intake of breath as the man, in a deep and resonant voice with no music to accompany him, began to sing the freedom song “We Shall Overcome.”
A few people stood and joined him, prompting all two thousand New Yorkers of every race, religion, ethnicity and class to follow. We spontaneously held the hands of those standing on either side of us, and we sang our hearts out. For renewal. For love. For each other.
Through voices lifted to the heights of that magnificent space — transcendence. I was overtaken by the beauty of it all, caught up in an almost mystical recognition of our interconnection, not only to the people standing together but to all people on earth, and for that matter, to all living things. I mourned for those who had been killed in the attacks and grieved for their families and friends. I contemplated the South African concept of Ubuntu: I am because you are. Whatever affects you somehow affects me. And outside the walls of the church, people were sending messages from every corner of the globe. “We are American,” they wrote on flags and poster boards and whatever they could find. The world had suddenly become kinder. This is the power and beauty of the transcendent: to bind us together across lines of difference, to remind us of our shared humanity.
The most important lesson we can draw from a time of such gripping fear is this: we are part of each other, not just interconnected but interdependent. We will rise and fall together, and indeed, our collective future rests on ensuring that all of us are safe, that all of us are free. It is only by reimagining systems that puts our shared humanity and the earth at the center rather than profit or individualism that we will build a future in which all of us can flourish and sustain.
Of course, an act of terror differs from a global pandemic. Today, we are all fighting an invisible enemy. This moment demands that we commit to solidarity not just with our own wounded city but with every nation on the planet. We cannot hold hands–nor even touch one another physically–but we can remind ourselves daily that we are connected to each other and to all living things, and that we will rise only together. We can transcend our differences and indeed, we will only put an end to this pandemic if we think and act for all of us, not just for ourselves.
If 9/11 should have been a wake-up call, Coronavirus is an alarm. One that demands a restart, even as we do all we can to tackle the most acute impacts of the virus raging in these next months. While fighting a common enemy, so do we have a new chance to rethink our systems within a moral framework, a framework that puts the vulnerable and the earth first; that values competence as well as collaboration, persistence, patience and kindness. And that insists on a new humility while holding to the audacity needed to do big things. But that framework must be grounded in the idea that we are all equal, connected and part of each other. It must be grounded in transcendence. I am because you are.