One of the most heroic moments of World War II came during what has come to be known as the Miracle of Dunkirk when 338,000 Allied soldiers were evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk, France. It took 850 ships and nine days. It was the largest rescue by ships or boats in history.
Before 9/11, that is.
On Sept. 11, 2001, 500,000 people were evacuated from lower Manhattan in nine hours. No order was given. A simple call came over the radio asking for “all available boats.” Hundreds of boats, fishing boats, tour boats, private boats and the Coast Guard, descended on every pier, using torn bed sheets to show their destination (“Hoboken”), only to return as quickly as they could. They evacuated 500,000 people in nine hours.
We are also the greatest generation.
I mean no disrespect for my father’s generation when I say that. What I mean to convey is that my generation, every generation, has greatness in it, the greatness that comes from courage unknown until called upon, compassion undiscovered until unlocked.
I know the anniversary of 9/11 has come and gone, and many of you would like to talk about something else now. I understand. There is a fatigue that comes with the memory of that day. “Compassion fatigue” is what Salt Lake County Aging Services caregiver Kathy Nelson called it on “A Woman’s View.” “You can only give so much before you have to let it go. It’s like Christmas syndrome. You give a lot more in November and December, and then you stop giving in January. Give. Give. Give. Okay. Rest.”
Clair Mellenthin is the director of Child and Adolescent Services at Wasatch Family Therapy. “Feeling compassion can be really uncomfortable because it makes us really vulnerable," she said. "I remember after 9/11 I was living in Los Angeles, and everyone had agreed to put a lighted candle in the window. I was surprised to look out one night and see all of the candles in the windows all over the city. But then in just a few weeks, we were back to business as usual.”
Business as usual. I suppose there is certain strength in that phrase, but something in my spirit fights against it. I don’t want to go back to business as usual. I want to be changed, forever changed. I want to be different, incapable of the cold indifference to neighbor and community I was capable of before that day. I want the love I felt for my fellow man to still burn inside me and not dissolve back into a puddle of impatient criticism and road rage.
But as President Thomas S. Monson observed in his piece in the Washington Post, “it seems that much of that renewal of faith has waned in the years that have followed. Healing has come with time, but so has indifference. We forget how vulnerable and sorrowful we felt. Our sorrow moved us to remember the deep purposes of our lives. The darkness of our despair brought us a moment of enlightenment. But we are forgetful. When the depth of grief has passed, its lessons often pass from our minds and hearts as well."
We face a new test now, we of this great generation. Not just of maintaining vigilance in the face of constant threat. Not just of maintaining respect for freedoms while protecting ourselves against that threat. But perhaps the greatest test of all — the daily cultivation of a compassion, a steady and abiding compassion, for our fellow man, not just in the hour of our greatest need, but in every hour. Because the call for “all available boats” is a constant call, a daily call, and one we of this, and every generation, can heed.
I begin again this day, with renewed hope, to answer the call.