What Suffering Teaches

Jeffrey here.

We continue to ride around NYC with our sign promoting human rights.

We had a nice view from the Highbridge, spanning the Harlem River, built on what was an 1848 aqueduct. Piped water was carried over this bridge for 101 years.

How different this is from my native northern NY.

This weekend, the city’s focus, perhaps the country’s focus, is on 9/11.

Nancy was in the city that day. I was not. But I have plenty of memories of World Trade Center terror, before and after.

On my way home to New Jersey from teaching at Brooklyn Law School, I arrived at the top of a WTC escalator in time to get a snootful of smoke rising from the February 26, 1993, terrorist bombing. Class had run late or I would have been on the PATH train platform when the explosion dislodged chunks of the concrete ceiling.

The smoke from 9/11/01 was much worse. The stench of vaporized plastic and people . . . unforgettable.

A few days later, I dressed in a jacket and tie, took a train to midtown Manhattan, and biked down Broadway toward the Brooklyn Bridge. When I crossed Canal Street, a police officer challenged me. I considered asking the officer politely why, a mile away from the attack site, he was challenging my free travel. Then I decided not to stand on ceremony, showed the officer my law school faculty ID, and told him that I was going to teach my class. He waved me on.

A few days after that, I flew to California for a college roommate’s family celebration, uneasily eyeing the other airline passengers as they eyed me. The plane flew close to the WTC site, which still was smoking. The view was horrifying, as unforgettable as the stench.

But I can’t say that the attack itself scarred me as it scarred many others.

Thousands died in America on 9/11/01. Not just from terrorism. Victims of gunshots, stabbings, traffic violence, drug overdoses, and more. Some behaved heroically. Most were just victims. We memorialize the 9/11 victims. Other victims are overlooked because their suffering was ”ordinary”.

Not thousands, but millions, died after 9/11, because of 9/11. At home and abroad. From wars. From America’s investment of trillions (a trillion is a thousand billion) of dollars in weapons instead of in the wellbeing of our neighbors. From hatred inspired by our fear.

Suffering makes some folks kinder. More empathetic.

It hasn’t done so for us Americans. We are, or have become, a timorous people. Fear makes us lash out. We don’t treat others as we want to be treated.

We abuse migrants in violation of our own laws. Sometimes our cruelty kills them.

We shouldn’t be afraid of them.

My family took in homeless immigrants, some after they spent as long as 19 months in immigration jail. Among them was a Lebanese goldsmith who made a gold, diamond, and ruby pendant for Nancy (I bought the materials, he provided the design and labor).

An Iranian played a board game with our 5-year-old daughter.

A Ugandan Pentecostalist pastor quoted to me from Isaiah.

A Somali in my kitchen asked me why I did women’s work and listened when I explained that in America, work is not men’s or women’s, it’s just work. The next morning, he helped me wash the breakfast dishes.

Our kids love their mom, but it’s my “Somali women’s work” cooking they miss. This is a chocolate cherry cake I baked in NYC, awaiting a crown of (fake) whipped cream. (Dirty dishes not shown.)
Almond cookies, based on an Iraqi recipe, that I baked at my camp a few miles from Canada. (I washed the dishes later.)

A Burmese looked out the window as we drove past a Rahway River park to our former home in a clean, green New Jersey town, and exclaimed, in simple English learned from other immigration prisoners, “Here you can live forever!”

Cranford, NJ, is a long way from Yangon, Myanmar (a.k.a. Rangoon, Burma).

We helped these and other good people despite a system designed to deny them help. Despite a system designed to punish them for asking for protection according to our laws.

Below is a September 11, 2021, online opinion piece from today’s New York Times. The piece appears in today’s (September 12) print edition as Stop Imprisoning Immigrants. The author hasn’t let post-9/11 fear destroy her humanity. Other opinion writers, ruled by fear . . . well, let’s not go there.

• • •

Joey’s and my 2021 Ride so far has covered 431 miles (694 km). Since the 2011 Ride to Postville, Iowa, we’ve pedaled 12,208 miles (19,647 km) to promote human rights and Human Rights First. To give us time to prepare for 2022, we’ll end the 2021 Ride around the end of September.

Meanwhile, stay tuned.

And when you suffer—as we all do—may suffering open your heart, not harden it.

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