Nation's spirit resurfaces from last week's rubble

September 18, 2001|By Lucie Snodgrass

PATIENTLY, and for the third time, the woman in front of me explained the problem with her prescription. Finally, the pharmacist was called. It turned out the woman was right.

"Give me five minutes to fix it," the pharmacist said apologetically, and disappeared. With that, the woman turned around to me. "You know, " she said, "two days ago I would have been upset by this. Today, it just doesn't matter."

I knew exactly what she meant. It has taken a unspeakable tragedy, but America's lens has finally come back into focus. Beneath the rubble of the World Trade Center we found more than just horror and the all-too-rare survivor. We found a piece of America's soul.

It is the piece that was missing for a long time, left on the floor of an oversized SUV, or in the guest room of a beach house that gets used just three weeks of the year. It is the piece of our soul that reaches out to total strangers to comfort and be comforted. It is the piece that gives generously on the spur of the moment, simply because there is a need. It is the piece that volunteers in emergencies with no reward in mind. It is the piece that belongs to all of us who are Americans, whether we were born here or came as immigrants.

It is our spirit.

As the immigrant child of Swiss parents, I grew up breathing the American dream. My parents left the prosperity and neutrality of Switzerland willingly - even eagerly - for the promise of America.

I was raised believing passionately that Americans were different - and special. That they were more open to innovation and to change than the Swiss. That they were more generous. And more tolerant.

My father disagreed with his Swiss friends and family who said that America's energy was nothing more than greed. As perhaps only an immigrant could, he understood very well what united this country and made it so unique. It was sharing with millions of others the dream of a place that valued freedom of expression, that promoted tolerance and that allowed everyone to dream of a better life.

It was our spirit.

Growing up in the 1960s, I remember the heart-stopping excitement the nation felt when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. We all knew that we were first to put a man there, not because the Russians couldn't, but because Americans were determined to do it first.

It was our spirit.

I have not forgotten the many injustices that existed - and exist this week in the attacks on Arab-Americans - in this country of ours. I remember vividly the Kennedy and King assassinations, the Vietnam War, Watergate and the civil rights movement.

But it is the dream of a just and free society that I remember and which united us even in our divisions. We did not see ourselves as individuals as we do today. We seemed more like threads of a flag, than finished squares of a quilt. It is why millions of Americans, myself included, went into public service. It is why millions more still strive to reach our shores.

It is our spirit.

Let us hope that as the initial shock of tragedy wears off, that, as the pull of our day-to-day lives grows stronger again, that we never forget this week. For though we have incurred a loss that has cleaved the nation, we have also found a gift, sooty and scratched but infinitely precious, among the souls of thousands of innocent people. We have found our spirit. We cannot let terrorism or anything else ever take that away.

Lucie Snodgrass was director of governmental and community relations in Harford County. She lives in Street.

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