Yesterday was September 11th, again, and Facebook, Twitter, Instachat, Snapder, Tindagram, and every other publisher of unfiltered, self-serving drivel was filled with people instructing everyone else to #neverforget. But for the life of me I don’t know what the hell they mean by that, and I’d bet most of them don’t know either. My guess is that most people posting a pic of the lights in lower Manhattan with a #neverforget caption are just checking the box of a perceived social obligation. “OOH! I should post a pic of my first pumpkin spice latte of the year! [Sees the date on iPhone home screen] Oh, shit. It’s September 11th. Ok, I’ll make a 9/11 post real quick so I don’t look like an asshole. Then the latte.”
Never forget… What exactly? Why should we never forget? Is never forgetting different from always remembering? Is nothing sacred? Do you have to use that horrendous hash tag?
When I see the words “Never Forget” on the back of a massive pickup truck, I assume that it means, “Never forget the dirty [insert slur involving towels, camels, and/or sand here] who did this. We gonna make ‘em pay! [spits into dip cup]” Do some people literally mean, “Hey, don’t forget! I know you almost completely forgot that that happened, and you wouldn’t have remembered if I hadn’t reminded you.” Excuse me, but what the fuck?! I’m insulted that you think I actually need to be reminded. No one is going to just forget. “Oh, yeah! That World Trade Center thingy. Didn’t a bunch of people die or something?” No. Not gonna happen.
The only other thing I can think of is that it is somehow related to grief and guilt. I’ve learned a lot about grief lately. Not my own; I’ve been fortunate enough to not have lost anyone very close to me. But I’ve been working my way through Nate Bennett’s new book, Shannon’s Gift, and I’ve watched the first season of HBO’s The Leftovers (both of which I would highly recommend). Shannon’s Gift is a very raw, intimate window into Bennett’s grief and recovery after suddenly losing his wife. The Leftovers takes place three years after 2% of the world’s population suddenly vanishes, and it focuses on the people of a small Long Island town who are all grieving in their own ways.
A theme that shows up in both Shannon’s Gift and The Leftovers (which is based on a book of the same name) is the internal conflict of never forgetting and always remembering. It goes something like this: You are miserable because of your loss, but you want to be happy. The one you lost would want you to be happy, so you feel guilty for not being happy. But as soon as you do feel happy, you also feel guilty because happiness looks and feels like forgetting. You don’t want to forget, out of respect for the one you lost, and because there was so much good to remember about them. So now you’re feeling guilty and miserable again. It’s a shitty cycle to be stuck in.
Is that what we’re doing? Are we circling back around? Is it like hanging garlic on our door to keep the guilt away? “Never forget. Don’t move on completely. Continue to feel some amount of pain. You’re not allowed to not feel some pain. I haven’t forgotten. I’m not a bad person. I still hurt. I have to.” What about the people who actually lost someone in the attacks? Not a second cousin or a coworker, but a spouse or a child – someone who truly left a gaping hole in their heart. They aren’t free to grieve in their own way. The entire country is grieving for them. And I don’t mean “for them” to mean that we are empathetic. I mean the country is literally grieving for them – taking their place and forcing the grief to take a certain manifestation. Some people like to grieve in private. Some people want to take that date of the year back and be able to enjoy it. Some people may think the date itself holds no real significance; it’s just an arbitrary marking of time. But we say, “Nope. You will grieve on September 11th every year. We will hold ceremonies that we expect you to attend. We will remind you to never forget, because if you do forget, you are a bad person. We can’t let that guilt fully escape you.”
The only way to avoid it is to stay inside with everything turned off. In The Leftovers, a cult called The Guilty Remnant forms. The group’s entire purpose is to not let anyone forget about “The Great Departure.” They essentially torture people with heart-wrenching reminders, not just of the event as a whole, but also of each individual’s loss. They punish themselves as well by abandoning their families and possessions. They wear all white and chain smoke “to proclaim [their] faith.” As I saw the #neverforget hash tags popping up in my news feed, I couldn’t help but picture the author staring at the computer screen in all white, with a cigarette hanging out of their mouth.
Not only do we tell these poor people to never forget, we make them relive it. Radio and TV stations love to replay their coverage minute by minute, exactly as it happened on that day. How massively fucked up is that?! If you received a phone call one day to tell you that your wife was dead, would you want to hear a recording of that phone call over and over again? What if you had to avoid radio and TV every year on that day because they were all broadcasting that phone call? It’s a sick kind of torture for these people, but we don’t even think about that. We just like to watch the train wreck over and over again.
I know that people have good intentions when they talk about 9/11. I don’t think anyone is maliciously trying to hurt people. But when you type the words “never forget”, I challenge you to think about what exactly it is you want everyone, and yourself, to remember. Be bold and say whatever it is you really mean. If there’s some lesson to be learned, say it. But don’t just throw out an obligatory, vapid phrase that isn’t even a complete thought. Never forget… What?