In recovery we love our acronyms…but to be honest, I hated them at first. They are just too cliché, too cutesy, too "twee" as they would say in the U.K. But they are often very true. One of these, that made me cringe when I first heard it (but that I now throw around like an old pro) is H.O.P.E. Hold On, Pain Ends.
Last week I was invited to a 20th anniversary fundraiser for the families of the victims of 9/11. There were survivors there who lost husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, relatives, colleagues, partners, friends. There were people there who had spoken to their loved ones as they called from the burning towers to say goodbye. We heard the story of a 24-year-old man who had called his parents to say that the heat was overwhelming and that he knew that this was the end. And we heard this story from his parents, now in their seventies. Their child would have been 44 years old this year. “What could have been?” they wondered aloud.
So all these loved ones left behind got up on the stage to honor the memory of those they had lost. All of the lives cut short by an act of indescribable viciousness and barbarity. “How are they still alive?” I wondered. "How do you survive that?" I still have this idea that if faced with that level of tragedy, that level of supreme evil and injustice, I would crumble. I imagine myself getting some horrible call like that. A call that would surely break my spirit forever. That would kill me. How does a person survive something as horrific as 9/11?
At the memorial the survivors all said the same thing. That the only way for them to heal from the tragedy of 9/11 was to step away from their own grief in an attempt to help the other families who had also lost loved ones in the towers. I was moved to tears by these testimonies. By the strength. By the ability to go on to live in a world that had dealt them the cruelest blow imaginable. By the desire to want to help, to be of service to their fellows. I sat throughout the entire event in awed admiration of these survivors, blown away by their incomprehensible pain but also by their incomprehensible strength. Amazed by their ability to work through their grief and go on to live lives that their lost loved ones would be proud of.
But I was aware of the seemingly indestructible nature of the human spirit before 9/11. I am of Irish Catholic descent but grew up in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. I started attending services with friends for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Passover, Bar and Bat Mitzvahs when I was in elementary school. By the time I was 15 I had been to Temple more times than I had seen the inside of a church. I have friends whose grandparents were slaughtered by the Nazis so the Holocaust was a front and center event in my early childhood. Like the events of 9/11, I just could not wrap my head around the scale of the horror, the scope of the tragedy. I was speaking to a rabbi one day (as young Irish catholic girls are apt to do....?) and expressing my lack of comprehension of the events. He suggested that I read a book entitled Night by Elie Wiesel about his experiences living though the hell of the Auschwitz and Buchenwald death camps. The book gripped me immediately and has stayed with me to this day. Recently I went back and re-read it, wondering what it was that had held me riveted all those years ago.
The book talks about the horrors of the camps, the gassing, the burning, the death and starvation. But every once in a while something happens to the author that shows him the unbelievable strength of the human spirit. One day at Buchenwald a fellow prisoner smiles at Elie. He writes "I will never forget that smile. From what world did it come?" This was not a madman's smile, no, it was in fact his father smiling at him, his son, upon awakening. He was happy that he and his son had lived to see another day. That line amazed me then and it amazes me now. Even there, even then, the human spirit marched on. And I saw it again at the 9/11 memorial. There were tears cried but also laughter. Even joy. Joy in the pure beauty of having loved someone so much. These survivors have given meaning to their lives by helping others, by finding a way to survive the unsurvivable, and even to thrive.
Re-reading Night, and sitting there listening to the 9/11 survivors, I realized something about the human spirit. I think that was what spoke to me at such a young age in Elie Weisel's book. Something that I have also seen in the rooms of A.A. The triumph of the human spirit over adversity is a truly miraculous thing to behold. We move on. We move forward. We retain hope in the face of complete hopelessness. That is not to say we forget. We will never forget, but we can move on with faith. Faith in something greater than ourselves, some universal benevolence perhaps. Faith that things will get better. Faith that our experience, no matter how dark or heartbreaking, can possibly help others. Faith that our spirit, no matter how splintered, can be reassembled. The indomitable ability of the human spirit to hold on to hope in the face of overwhelming despair is a miracle. I used to think that miracles didn't exist; now I know that they do.
Just as man cannot live without dreams, he cannot live without hope. If dreams reflect the past, hope summons the future.