The al Qaeda attacks on 9/11 exemplify a disruptive event experienced concurrently by many people, yet with a variety of responses. Sadly, a great number of Americans saw 9/11 as a defining moment of their lives. I discussed some of those uncreative, unproductive perceptions of 9/11 in my post on the 10th anniversary of 9/11.
The widespread American responses of fear, perhaps even panic, in the aftermath of 9/11, do illustrate the transformative social power of certain disruptive events. The disciples’ response to Jesus’ death and resurrection similarly illustrate the transformative social power of a disruptive event. In both instances, what began as an event in the lives of individuals (a relative handful of people with respect to Jesus, a few thousand on 9/11) became transformative in the lives of literally millions of people.
One essential element in a disruptive event moving from an individual (or small group) to a wide scale socially transformative event is for people to perceive that the disruptive event is germane to their life. In the case of Jesus, the disciples and their later converts believed that through the events of Jesus’ life and death individuals could enter into a unique relationship with God. In the case of 9/11, people believed that the world was no longer the same place as it was on September 10, 2001. This latter claim is patently false: the world had not changed but people’s perception of the world had changed. Perception, as happens so often, defined reality. Although fewer seem to understand the dynamics, the world does not change for people who encounter God through Jesus. God continuously embraces and is present to the whole world. What changed was that a person who had been unaware of the divine presence and love became of aware of that loving presence. The person’s perception, as with 9/11, had changed; the world had remained the same.
A second essential element in a disruptive event moving from an individual to a large scale transformative moment is for the initial experience(s) to resonate deeply among a wider audience. First century people (and millions since then) have had a spiritual hunger sated through living into the Jesus story. Analogously, millions of twenty-first century Americans recognized the fragility of life, shattering their illusion of invulnerability.
Socially disruptive events may occur on a mass scale (e.g., an earthquake), to an individual (e.g., Paul on the Damascus road), or to a group whose size lies between those two extremes (e.g., 9/11). The scale of the disruptive event does not invariably have a direct relationship with its transformative potential. Natural disasters often effect masses but may prove transformative for few people. Most disruptive events that occur in an individual’s life or to a small group have the potential to transform few other lives.
A disruptive event, whatever its scale, resonates deeply in the life of a person uninvolved in the event when that person recognizes the potential for such an event occurring in her/his life, identifies with those directly affected, and vicariously joins the ranks of those affected. Christian theologians typically reverse the terms when referring to Jesus death and resurrection as vicarious events. It is not that he identified with us but that we identify with him that makes his death and resurrection transformative.
Thirdly and finally, the transformative effect of a disruptive event may be constructive (life giving) or destructive (life destroying). 9/11, for the vast majority of people, was destructive: fear overwhelmed any pre-existing confidence or trust in God’s gifts of abundant life, happiness, and trust. Conversely, Jesus’ death led people to experience the mystery of God’s gifts of abundant life, happiness and trust more deeply and fully.
Disruptive events, by their very nature, are beyond a person’s ability to control. Disruptive events occur sporadically and unpredictably in all of our lives. How do we shape our response such that it leads to constructive rather than destructive transformation?
Transformation happens in one of three ways. First, a person may decide to change. In this instance, a disruptive event serves as the catalyst for initiating and perhaps facilitating the change. Second, external events may change the person. A dramatic example of this is a disruptive event that causes a person to lose a limb or the discovery that one suffers from a major, perhaps incurable, disease. The circumstances forever alter one’s life. Less obvious but no less real are the multiple ways in which events over which one has no control changes one’s life (e.g., thinking, predispositions, or decisions) in ways over which one has no control, regardless of any illusions to the contrary. Humans, after all, at best enjoy limited autonomy; most of what we do and who we are is a function of genetics, environment, and experience over which we have no control. Third, transformation may result from a combination of personal choice and externally determined factors.
Improving one’s self-awareness (one of the six elements of the human spirit) can aid transformation by increasing the opportunity to respond creatively and lovingly to disruptive events. Improving self-awareness also can deepen one’s relationship with God by opening wider the windows in one’s life through which the divine light can shine more fully. No human can control God’s actions but humans, through openness and attentiveness, can increasingly become aware of who God is and what God is doing.
Imagine how life in the United States, and the world, might have been different had the U.S. and more individuals tried to respond creatively and constructively to the disruptive events of 9/11. Neither the war in Afghanistan nor Iraq would have occurred, saving tens of thousands of lives and more than $1 trillion (entirely deficit financed). The Transportation Security Administration would not exist (this agency provides an illusory façade of security; genuine security depends upon people willing taking responsibility for their lives, as happened on 9/11 aboard United Airlines Flight 93. Millions of people would not have lost more than $100 billion in the panic that followed 9/11; our economy would have continued largely uninterrupted, denying victory to the criminals who perpetrated the attacks. We would have built bridges to Muslims – a religion that teaches peace through submission to God. The events of 9/11 would have occasioned long-term spiritual renewal rather than the very short-term spike in worship attendance that occurred.
Even when a human has little control over how a disruptive event changes their life, humans can develop a remarkable degree of control over their emotions. A person can opt to reject (not to deny or suppress!) the initial, perhaps involuntary emotional response and to substitute a different emotional response. This idea is basic to anger management classes and some forms of therapy. I’ve repeatedly helped individuals skeptical about their ability to control their emotions develop that control and change their lives. If nothing else, succumbing to terror cedes a huge psychological victory to terrorists. Conversely, refusing to be terrorized preserves one’s dignity, avoids becoming an emotional victim, and denies the most critical element of success to terrorists, i.e., instilling terror in civilians.