The death and destruction of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, then the anthrax scare, and who knows what next have shaken Americans to the core.
To allay the fear, and deny the terrorists' objective of miring us in it, we have been advised since last fall to "return to normal." So far, so good. But perhaps we should still be asking: To what kind of normal are we returning? To surly in-your-face attitudes? Toilet humor? Road rage, air rage? To smash-mouth?
So much acting out, mostly of anger, by any civilized standard, is not normalcy but pathology, yet it once was commonplace in our culture and our everyday lives. We had become, as a friend says, "weird." So much so that the do-gooder, normally a hero for harnessing his furies, was seen as a loser, while the prodigal who vents his became the winner.
In fact, normalcy itself, being civilized, had somehow become abnormal, uncool, bor-ring. It lacked edge. Really? As hard-nosed George Orwell wrote, "The fact which we have got to cling as to a life-belt, is that it is possible to be a normal, decent person and yet be fully alive."
Rather than edge, great civilizations strive for excellence - in political, scholarly, and artistic achievement. Yet, ever since we bested the Soviet Union and emerged the sole superpower, America has increasingly emphasized the sharp elbow over the sharp mind.
How did this happen?
Perhaps it's our individualism run amok, unchecked by any rival; or psychic release from our multi-tasked lives; or, as Orwell suspected, a desire for drama, especially amid our deep-pile comforts. Whatever the reason, compared with the rage of a second-generation refugee growing up in a squalid camp, this anger is too often unearned.
As for our deep-pile comforts: Has the pile become too deep? The car toys, the waiter's epic recitation of specials, the remote control with way more buttons than "on" and "off"? Isn't it all excessive?
But then, we lacked perspective. While commerce went global, we citizens had not - until Sept. 11, the day the world crashed in America. Even though, with our remote control, we might have felt the refugee's pain as deeply as our own, we really didn't. Which is normal, but also blind, for it is a wired world and we are on view. And what the world saw, in a global landscape of empty dreams and suffering, was a people who set up as a carnival - raucous, high-energy, increasingly freaky freak acts. Remember Clinton-Lewinsky? Not normal.
On Sept. 11, however, the world saw another picture of America, this one truer. By the power of their grief, spouses sobbing for their "other half," missing in the World Trade Center or the Pentagon, etched in the most vivid way the centrality of love. Valiant rescue workers redefined heroism by reinstating service to its high place. All these souls, in that moment of life and death, acted from the same source: their core. Not edge, but core.
In reaction, so did we. On that terrible morning, we Americans suddenly knew what we live and die for. Suddenly we became philosophers, contemplating ultimate things: life, death, time, the soul.
It is this baseline moment, may I suggest - in the grip of fear, when for each of us the vital was made known and the superfluous fell away - that is our guide. The ultimate points the way to the normal. Love, honor, and service may serve as markers of a new normalcy, taking us beyond me-me-me, out into the world - a place we need to go.
Moreover, a new normalcy would include living past fear. The easy capacity for another terrorist to wreak havoc makes safety a mere memory. This means staying in the philosophical mode that Sept. 11 pressed on us. I see many Americans taking many deep breaths and pondering. Myself, I like the pondering, the bracing conversation beyond insult and irony. Friends who once ignored foreign affairs now don't, and have become newly fascinating. I especially admire the self-criticism I hear, the admission that we had become self-absorbed "big time." I hope it continues - as a normal practice - for our dominance in the world requires more thought on our part, less noise.
Of course, being at ultimate pitch continuously is not possible. We must kick back, find our pleasures. In this still-early aftermath of the attacks, there is a need for distraction and escapism, understandably. I only hope we do not revert to toilet humor, to the teenage antics of celebrities.
Unique historically, we Americans believe we can reinvent ourselves, and we can reinvent normalcy. We must first recognize that normalcy is not "boring." I see the normal person as a grand opera of feeling, for whom saying the kind word is a choice, not a gene. In turn, this kind word, rather than a sharp elbow, would improve our personal relations and, in a wired world, transmit a more mature national style. Equally powerful as a transmitter is our popular culture - movies, TV, music, advertising.
Thus, everything depends on the dial we touch, the ticket we buy. (Only we can make our celebrities grow up.) For, in this new kind of war, with each of us on the front line, what is it we are defending: a carnival - or what?
The choice is ours.
Carla Seaquist, a playwright, is author of 'The Washington-Sarajevo Talks.'