Make sense of a senseless act? It may be impossible. Yet we try to do just that, because the nagging feeling that something senseless has reshaped our lives proves intolerable. We fiercely resist disempowerment. If we are disempowered, our lives lack meaning.
How does meaningfulness arise? People with a spiritual life inside a religion turn to their faith to interpret experiences as senselessly horrible as the Marathon bombings. But even within a coherent system of ethics, senseless acts are still inexplicable. Those who live outside a faith tradition may have a philosophy that diagnoses a heinous crime, but they may have nowhere to go for solace, which is often a component of religion.
We can, however, turn to the arts. First, a caveat: Literature illustrates, through narrative, how life works under various social, economic or political circumstances or how it seems to work in the minds of characters with high principles or base motives. Literature does not tell us what to do. As readers, we still have to decide for ourselves what ideas to embrace and actions to take.
Just as bookends hold stories tightly, in an ordered way, on the bookshelf, our hearts and minds yearn for coherence, reason, meaningfulness — ways of thinking that impose at least the illusion of control on uncontrollable experience. What if we need a way to bookend a tragedy like the Boston Marathon bombing, in April 2013, and its subsequent chaos — the killing of one suspect and the bloody apprehension of another, after a million-person metro area went through mourning, anger, fear, scores of injuries and several deaths? What narrative frame could possibly contain the bizarre energy of such events?
We might listen closely to a great Rolling Stones’ rock song, “Sympathy for the Devil.” The narrator is Satan, a man of wealth and taste. He has seen it all, witnessed every horrible incident history can offer, from the blitzkrieg to the Kennedy murders. He revels in his perverse attractiveness. His power seduces and terrifies. And he wants us to know he’s not going away. Satan returns, forever.
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