Thursday, September 13, 2012

9/11 Reflection

On this morning’s flight to Austin, Texas for the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials (ASTHO) annual meeting, I was able to complete my yearly 9/11 ritual of reading Seamus Heaney’s “The Cure at Troy” which is his 1991 version of Sophocles’ 5th century BCE “Philoctetes.”  The story is one of a wounded man rejected by society, abandoned, and terrorized by enemies who see ends justifying means.  The story shows Philoctetes overcoming his hatred and distrust of his enemies to return to society for healing and ultimate victory over his foes.  The play highlights the conflict between personal integrity and political expediency.  It also explores how the victims of injustice can become as obsessed with their wounds as the perpetrators are to the justification of the harms they have done.  It’s a poignant 9/11 story – it’s also an everyday story. 
I particularly appreciate the fact that Heaney sets the stage for the play with this W. H. Auden poem:
‘O look, look in the mirror
   O look in your distress;
Life remains a blessing
   Although you cannot bless.
O stand, stand at the window
   As the tears scald and start;
You shall love your crooked neighbor
   With your crooked heart.’
and ends the play with these words from the Chorus:
Human beings suffer,
They torture one another,
The get hurt and get hard.
No poem or play or song
Can fully right a wrong
Inflicted and endured.
History says, Don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.
So hope for a great sea-change
On the far side of revenge.
Believe that a further shore
Is reachable from here.
Believe in miracles
And cures and healing wells.
Call miracle self-healing:
The utter, self-revealing
Double-take of feeling.
If there’s fire on the mountain
Or lightning and storm
And a god speaks from the sky
That means someone is hearing
The outcry and the birth-cry
Of new life at its term.
To me, “The Cure at Troy” is also a public health story.  It recognizes the fact that the lives of many in our world are negatively affected and terrorized by the same attitudes and dishonesty that confronted Philoctetes.  Yet, the story reminds us that there is always hope that with the right circumstances and with the right support, healing can occur for both individuals and society.
Let us hope that the lessons of 9/11 can teach us the lesson learned by Philoctetes and expressed in his last lines in the play:  “I feel I’m a part of what was always meant to happen, and is happening now at last. Come on, my friends.”

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