Today, like every day of the last decade, we are feeling the effects of a deplorable act. My family's story is like that of most Americans; we were fortunate not to lose anyone directly, though some of us were close by. One of us could have been in the Pentagon that day; one of us was sent from the Air Force base in New Jersey in time to see the buildings come down and to help guide people away from the rubble to safety. We could have lost much more than we did.
This is about what we gained.
For many, the shock and the aftermath brought them to a place of renewed Faith. They turned to God - whether the God they had been raised to believe in and fallen away from, or the God they had never considered and now needed. "God Bless America" was everywhere in the years that followed the attacks. The ceremonies today are full of scripture, invocation of the name of God, and songs like Amazing Grace.
But as my friends and family well know, I have not turned toward their God in these years. They've seen me begin to identify myself more as an atheist or nontheist; a believer in nothing, it would seem. To them, this represents a loss. I see it as a gain. While they draw strength from putting a name to the universe, and imagining that it cares about them, I've drawn strength from confronting a cold, indifferent universe in which I can thrive despite adversity.
It has been hard for me - a boy raised deep in the thick of Southern Baptist faith and tradition - to learn a new vocabulary of faith and strength that doesn't require the existence of God. Music has helped. Poetry helps. Keeping hold of the ideas behind faith - love, charity, and mercy as the virtues that should drive us - while shedding the mystical, thought-clouding emotions tied to Faith has been an intense, private struggle. And life streams by, with currents and eddies that make finding your footing seem impossible.
Despite the impossibilities, I go on. We all do. It's impossible that we could even exist, but we do. That is the fact that ties all of us together regardless of the names we give to the world around us.
What I've gained in the last decade is a source of strength based on the impossible. I've learned (and am still learning) how my faith drives me. My faith is not in a god that controls the minutiae of my life. My faith is in the always reliable turmoil that generates and destroys life. It makes me choose what is truly important to me more carefully. It makes me fight harder for what I've chosen; for my wife and children. For a career that I think is an important part of preventing future acts of violence like those we are remembering today.
My faith tells me that people, while dangerous and unpredictable, are just like me and are driven by knowable forces - and ultimately, their understanding of those forces is sometimes given names that I don't have faith in. God. Allah. Karma. Jesus. Part of my faith requires me to let them have their point of view, and only contradict them when they truly threaten me, or when I have reason to fear their faith is taking them somewhere dangerous to themselves. We will always struggle with the cloudy grey areas where different understandings bump into each other; but I've learned that "assume good intent" and a general avoidance of revenge and violence can keep those struggles from causing harm.
As a "budding atheist" you might expect me to be uncomfortable with the invocation of God that comes with the ceremony of remembrance. I am. But because I understand that people need to relate to the world in a way that brings them peace and equilibrium, I try to treat the references to God, Heaven and a Higher Power as a code for the same basic things that I do believe in. To me, the names we choose don't matter as much as the stories and the lessons they teach.
It's up to each of us to pull the lessons of life and love from those stories; just as it is up to us to pull the laws of the universe out of observation and experimentation. You might venerate Doctor Who as much as some do Jesus, or your own ego as much as some do Buddha; it doesn't matter to me, as long as you find a way to stand up and face down your challenges. It doesn't matter how you express your faith, as long as you find a way to deal equitably with others.
I haven't become a perfect person in the last ten years. In some ways, I'm as lost and confused as I ever was; I'm certainly just as obnoxious and socially retarded now as when I was a young Christian. I may never reach the goals I've set for myself, and I may still lose the things that are most important to me. That is life.
But no matter what God or the universe have in store for me, I will love and admire my wife and children, and will do my best to lift up those around me. I will do what I can to make things better - even though "better" is a moving target. I like to think I would have gotten here without the influence of the September 11 attacks, but the truth is that they did impact me. And this is where I am now.
Whatever your beliefs are, I hope your faith is taking you through the turmoil toward something better. I like what Admiral Mullens said on Twitter today:
"Living well and for each other -- that is victory."
I hope that, whatever your beliefs are and whatever names you use for the universe, you find peace and strength in your reflections today.