Yesterday, as I’m sure you know, the 117th Boston Marathon was tragically interrupted by two consecutive bombs that went off blocks apart, right by the finish line. Two hundred people were hurt. A few died. Thousands came within one mile of completing the marathon, only to be stopped just before reaching Boylston St.
I grew up in Boston and (after a hiatus to Seattle) live here once more. I love “Marathon Monday” an unhealthy amount and have fuzzy memories of watching the race as a kid. I’m even a runner myself with hopes (delusions?) of someday running those 26.2. So, there are plenty of things that, in theory, connect me to what happened yesterday. Plenty of permutations of the universe where “I could have been there.” But — here’s the thing: I wasn’t. I was at home, a good 20 miles away, half-working and half-streaming the marathon from my laptop.
Any time there’s a tragedy, people want to relate to it, to discuss how they personally feel affected. I remember when 9/11 happened. I remember talking with friends over meals in college, with family on the phone. That was 2001. Before Facebook, before Twitter. Now, with social media so prevalent, all of these discussions, these comments, are incredibly public. My Facebook feed is a series of profile picture changes and quotes about our hometown. On Twitter, every other tweet has a hastag like #prayforboston or #bostonbomb attached to it. Rather than this outpouring feeling warm and fuzzy, however, it all feels very hollow and I have been thinking about why that might be.
In my opinion, there are two ways to view this behavior. One is that this is a form of survivor’s guilt. An outpouring of emotion, an attempt at empathy. The other, less flattering view, is that it’s part of an innate desire to be part of something, a way of publicly marking yourself as part of the inner circle of this tragedy. But, unless you were actually there, you weren’t. No matter how many vectors connect you to Boston or to running, unless you or someone you love was at the event, you weren’t. There is no “almost” or “could have been.” If the decision tree of life branched ever so slightly differently, you could have been at a myriad of terrible events. But you weren’t. And you should be thankful for that.
My feelings right now are likely hypocritical. After Newtown, I couldn’t stop crying. My son is a 1st grader and all I could think about were those poor parents who were enduring what had to be the worst possible thing that any human could ever have to endure. I was panicked and a bit hysterical and felt almost obligated to empathize with those families.
However, in stepping back from Newtown, what I realized was that no amount of hysteria or even empathy was going to solve the problems that led to such an event. “Sending my thoughts to Newtown” was no more going to help the families nor prevent future incidents than “praying for Boston” will now. The only person who benefited from such proclamations, in reality, was me. It was a subconscious form of self-indulgence.
I truly believe the best thing we can do in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings (and other terrible events) is to take a step back and look at the situation as rationally as possible. While I certainly don’t know who did this or why, I do know that so long as there are mentally ill people in the world, so long as there is human discord, tragedies like this will occur. The most important thing we can do is understand how best to prevent them in the future. What circumstances drove this person or group to want to do this? How can we mitigate those circumstances? How easy was it for them to gain access to the race? What is the right balance of security at future events? These are the types of questions we need to focus on if we really want to effect good. No hastags, no profile photos. Serious conversations and challenging questions.
Less praying, more problem-solving.