I worry about slogans.
When we reduce big lessons to bite-size phrases, they become easy to swallow without chewing first. We consume the words quickly, like candy — because they’re prettily packaged, sweet and addictive, easy and alluring. Because everybody else seems to be saying them.
We forget to digest. We forget to read between the lines. We forget that the intricacies of our language have profound power to shape our interpretations, even when the shifts are subtle or subconscious.
Today, on the anniversary of 2001’s terrorist attacks, the internet keeps urging me to “never forget.”
Never forget. Never forget. Never forget. As I left my apartment this morning, I carried that phrase in my back pocket.
I held “never forget” in my hands by the Brooklyn waterfront, looking out at One World Trade, where it stood tall and stern and solitary amidst the scattered skyline.
I swished “never forget” around in my mouth with my coffee, rolling it between tongue and teeth, tasting the subdued bitterness of it.
I wrote out “never forget” with a pencil on lined paper, trying to see what that felt like, and trying to recall the pencil and paper I was holding in my fifth grade classroom when the attacks happened. I remember where I was sitting, the angle of my head turned right towards the door, seeing a teacher crumpled against its frame, crying. I remember the crackle of the loudspeakers. I remember the stomach-twisting fear that my parents might somehow have been hurt. I remember struggling to grasp the immensity of what had happened and what it meant that I was powerless to change it.
“Never forget” seems incomplete to me — the simplicity of it. The passivity. The negativity of “never.” The suggestion that inaction has the same impact as action, like sidestepping what’s wrong is equivalent to doing what’s right.
I don’t think that what we need today is a prohibition or a warning — a forbiddance from forgetting. What we need is an encouragement — a reminder to remember. A push to actively engage with the pain and the fear and the injustice, and to somehow wield those difficult forces into fuel for good.
I’m not quite sure how to translate the emotions swirling around me today. I’m searching for the proper words for them — the precise ones. The relief that I was not more directly involved in 2001’s tragedy. The terror of the human race’s ability to cause atrocious destruction. The frustration. The confusion. At the same time, the warmth and the hope. The pride. The faith in the multitude of ways we manage to lift each other up.
I can’t shrink these things to stern and solitary slogans. I just know that “never forget” isn’t quite sufficient.
Instead of “never forget,” how about “always remember?” Something positive. Something that promotes action.
Individually, we can’t truly repair the horror that happened fourteen years ago. But we can each do the work of wholehearted and brave human beings — we can choose to be present, to engage, to honor this day with the reflection it deserves. We can choose to wrangle with our emotions, even when they’re difficult to swallow and to digest.
It is always easier to forget, to neglect, and to detach. That’s what “never forget” is really supposed to mean — don’t let it go. Don’t just sit there. Don’t be complacent.
Do something good. Do something that is challenging, but right. Something that hurts, but heals. Something kind. Even if it’s just helping a neighbor carry groceries up the stairs. Even if it’s just smiling bigger at a stranger and tipping your barista with an extra $2. Do something small that knits us all a little tighter, a little closer, a little warmer, even as the messy, scary complexity of human nature threatens constantly to tear cultures apart.