Reality TV – When 19 inches becomes monumental

This piece that I wrote was originally published on September 11, 2016 on The Twelve, a blog of Perspectives Journal.


The 19-inch TV was a surprise gift from my parents at high school graduation. Every Thursday night that next fall its modest screen filled a modest dorm room on the third floor of Timmer Hall. Suitemates sank into an overstuffed couch and others folded their legs onto the carpet to watch the debut seasons of Friends and ER.

My first TV moved with me to my first post-college job. Its laugh tracks lightened the loneliness of a one-bedroom apartment in an unfamiliar town. When my groom joined me in the cozy living quarters, we navigated the first year of newlywed compromises with the remote control.

Now its bulky form perched on top of a cluttered desk in our seminary townhouse, offering the occasional brain break from our immersive graduate studies. On that particular Tuesday morning, my husband went to his 8 AM class while I stayed home, tidying the place before an insurance agent would arrive to answer the question of the day: should two sem students, carrying considerable liberal arts debt, purchase health and life insurance?

I turned on a morning show while I picked up or wiped down the messiest parts of the main floor. Program segments and commercials played without my attention until a McDonald’s ad cut to a live shot of billowing smoke and grave voices, in stark contrast to the usual bubbly banter of the hosts. The little TV had been a trusty companion for the past seven years but now…now…I couldn’t, didn’t, or at least didn’t want to, trust what I was seeing and hearing. Confusion and concern escalated in the anchors’ voices as together, whether journalist or viewer, we witnessed a purported 1-plane accident explode into a 2-plane attack (and later, 3- and 4-plane).

“God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.”
– Psalm 46:1

The rest of the morning is a blur. The schedule of my day was quickly eclipsed by the surreal timeline of events being broadcast. The antenna received a small number of channels though it could have been just one; every station, every click of the remote, showed nearly identical images and video feed. Perhaps the angle or the voice varied, but all looped fire and smoke, first responders and sirens, fear and shock.

At some point my husband came home, sober, telling of the impromptu prayer gathering at the seminary. We were a couple weeks into our second year of theological education. We stared at the TV, numb, silent. No amount of schooling could prepare a pastor for this.

At some point the doorbell rang, expectant salesman on the front steps. We had nearly forgotten the planned visit. How can anything normal take place? There was no small talk, only the small screen revealing previously unimaginable scenarios.

How many of those thousands had carried health and life insurance, just in case? Just in case they encountered major medical emergencies. Just in case they suddenly died and left their families. And how many had not, because what are the chances? Yet within hours, those who escaped with injuries would be asked for their cards, their numbers, their coverage plans.

At some point others would frantically search for family and friends in every ER, the specifics around death policies rising as a dreaded topic in the coming weeks and months. There is simply no comprehensive and adequate way that ER personnel or insurance companies could prepare for something of this magnitude.

At some point my husband and I divided our attention between the 19-inch TV and the 8.5-by-11-inch paperwork before us. Just in case.

“Be still, and know that I am God.” – Psalm 46:10

It’s been 15 years. Our kids are 12 and 11 years old. The events of 9/11 are a history subject to their young minds. They have learned about it as such in school but without exposure to the raw sights and sounds of the actual day. And they don’t regularly see anything like it in terms of brutality; we own a TV (graduated up from the old 19-inch) that we use for Roku and Netflix, but we don’t have cable, and we don’t watch the news with them.

We intentionally choose to discuss all manner of awful and hard topics with openness and candor. We intentionally choose to limit the barrage of gruesome images and details the media feeds to a viral world devouring hate and violence and abuse like a casual midnight craving.

This past June, though, our family traveled from Michigan to Boston and New York City for our kids’ middle school class trip. They had reached an age where they could handle with relative maturity the full breadth of this painful “history lesson.” The National September 11 Memorial and Museum was humbling and devastating and haunting and beautiful. It displayed courage and horror and despair and healing.

It was hard. I watched with silent tears as my two beloveds stood stunned, mouths and eyes opened wide before the progressive video footage. Even 15 years ago it seemed like something out of a movie, and with the CGI they were accustomed to as digital natives, they struggled to comprehend its visceral reality. They lingered over the pictures, the quotes and captions, the dusty and charred artifacts. I saw the wrestling, the somberness, the anger that comes with greater knowledge of terrible things you can’t un-know, can’t un-see. I cried for all that was lost on September 11, and I cried for this world the next generation is inheriting.

“The Lord Almighty is with us.” – Psalm 46:11

Some things just don’t come with instruction books. Not for pastors, and not for parents. Tears and prayers and wisdom and grace and listening. We offer these things while fumbling, discerning, trying again. We take another step, give another hug, ask for more faith, speak some more truth, show some more compassion.

Today, do whatever God leads you to do in honoring and remembering this day. Pray, cry, listen, share a story, offer an embrace, teach about love and the courage to do what’s right. Choose to see and feel, and choose to do your part in bringing hope and healing wherever and whenever you are able. Grace and Peace to you.

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