September 26, 2001
We have a duty, almost a holy responsibility, to record and honor the victorious weight of these innumerable little kindnesses, when an unprecedented act of evil so threatens to distort our perception of ordinary human behavior. I have stood at ground zero, stunned by the twisted ruins of the largest human structure ever destroyed in a catastrophic moment. (I will discount the claims of a few biblical literalists for the Tower of Babel.) And I have contemplated a single day of carnage that our nation has not suffered since battles that still evoke passions and tears, nearly 150 years later: Antietam, Gettysburg, Cold Harbor. The scene is insufferably sad, but not at all depressing. Rather, ground zero can only be described, in the lost meaning of a grand old word, as "sublime," in the sense of awe inspired by solemnity.
In human terms, ground zero is the focal point for a vast web of bustling goodness, channeling uncountable deeds of kindness from an entire planet the acts that must be recorded to reaffirm the overwhelming weight of human decency. The rubble of ground zero stands mute, while a beehive of human activity churns within, and radiates outward, as everyone makes a selfless contribution, big or tiny according to means and skills, but each of equal worth. My wife and stepdaughter established a depot on Spring Street to collect and ferry needed items in short supply, including face masks and shoe inserts, to the workers at ground zero. Word spreads like a fire of goodness, and people stream in, bringing gifts from a pocketful of batteries to a $10,000 purchase of hard hats, made on the spot at a local supply house and delivered right to us.
I will cite but one tiny story, among so many, to add to the count that will overwhelm the power of any terrorist's act. And by such tales, multiplied many millionfold, let those few depraved people finally understand why their vision of inspired fear cannot prevail over ordinary decency. As we left a local restaurant to make a delivery to ground zero late one evening, the cook gave us a shopping bag and said: "Here's a dozen apple brown bettys, our best dessert, still warm. Please give them to the rescue workers." How lovely, I thought, but how meaningless, except as an act of solidarity, connecting the cook to the cleanup. Still, we promised that we would make the distribution, and we put the bag of 12 apple brown bettys atop several thousand face masks and shoe pads.
Twelve apple brown bettys into the breach. Twelve apple brown
bettys for thousands of workers. And then I learned something
important that I should never have forgotten and the joke
turned on me. Those 12 apple brown bettys went like literal hot
cakes. These trivial symbols in my initial judgment turned into
little drops of gold within a rainstorm of similar offerings for
the stomach and soul, from children's postcards to cheers by the
roadside. We gave the last one to a firefighter, an older man
in a young crowd, sitting alone in utter exhaustion as he inserted
one of our shoe pads. And he said, with a twinkle and a smile
restored to his face: "Thank you. This is the most lovely
thing I've seen in four days and still warm!"
Stephen Jay Gould, a professor of zoology at Harvard, is the author of "Questioning the Millennium."