As was said often over the past week — perhaps most forcefully by the gathered politicians and religious leaders at Thursday’s interfaith service at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross — the Boston Marathon bombers lost. They lost the instant their devices were detonated. Whatever their specific beliefs and grievances, their mistake was that they thought fear would divide us and make us smaller. Instead it pulled us together and made us bigger, as individuals and a city. The explosions and manhunt for the Tsarnaev brothers that bookended the week jolted us out of the daily complacency that separates us and with blunt traumatic force reminded us of the fragile humanity we have in common.
The work now becomes sustaining that commonality. It seems easy but in practice can turn out to be absurdly difficult. Our society is crisscrossed by fault lines of class, race, political conviction, religious belief. We judge one another based on generation and gender, by the clothes we wear and the tweets we follow. The only positive thing that can be said about disaster, whether man-made or natural, is that it obliterates all that and leaves us blinking in a renewed appreciation for the reality that binds us together. And then that appreciation fades. Sooner or later, it always fades.
Sometimes we barely know what to do with it in the first place. The night of the bombings, an acquaintance of mine had already volunteered to run a community dance in our town, an event that attracted an older, educated, crunchy crowd. Yet everyone was on edge, she said later. Arguments broke out, disagreements turned to tears. People showed up in desperate need of human comfort and ended up fighting about the rules. “My sad bumped up against her sad,” my friend said about one contretemps.
Well, of course it did. Something so enormous had just happened that we didn’t have words for it; we just needed the company. And real, in-person human company is rarely simple when you’re hurting. Making one’s feelings known in a Facebook post — that’s safe enough, and you can always feel a rosy sense of togetherness as you count up the “likes” you’ve received. But genuine connection requires actual presence, and it’s there that our vulnerabilities show up. Our sads, as my friend said.
Yet our strengths show up as well. Speaking personally, I’ve been through this twice now, in different ways and in no sense experiencing anything close to what the actual victims have. (I’ve been lucky. Remember that: By far the majority of us have been lucky.) I was living in Brooklyn when the Twin Towers fell and saw how cataclysm could weld an entire city into one wounded soul. The simple sorrowful decency shown by New Yorkers of every class and caste to one another was necessary, but it was also revolutionary — a triumph of empathy forced by unimaginable pain. And it lasted a good long while, longer even than the smell of burnt electrical wiring that hung over Lower Manhattan and took weeks to dissipate.
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