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Opinion

The Podium

How to make sense of an incomprehensible act

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.

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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.

The lyric — by Stone Mick Jagger — reflects a time of intense social disruption (1968): war in Vietnam, civil rights struggle, political assassinations, student protests, rampant drug use and sexual experimentation. “Sympathy” won’t let us pretend the devil is imaginary. He is as real as you or I. There is the first bookend to this Boston tragedy. It will never make sense until we face the fact that there is evil in the world, dressed up sometimes in a businessman’s suit or a student’s hoodie and baseball cap — apparently innocuous but carrying a razor sharp edge, with intent to kill.

The relief of Boston citizens at the moment of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s capture was palpable. People poured into the streets and shouted “USA! USA! Boston! Boston!” — as though at a sporting event. But if celebration makes us think the devil has been driven out of town, we’re wrong. He lives right next door, all the time.

Still, one cannot get up in the morning, prep the kids for school, kiss the spouse goodbye with hopes for a happy day, and then race off to work while thinking about the devil living in the neighborhood. We need higher thoughts to shunt the devil aside.

For the second bookend, recall what William Faulkner said in his 1950 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, delivered at a moment when a nuclear war with the Soviet Union seemed likely. Armed to the teeth with enough warheads to annihilate each other, America and the Soviet Union ensured that mutual assured destruction would be the only possible result in the event of nuclear war. Children hid under school desks in case of nuclear attack; families built bomb shelters in backyards. The federal budget tipped toward ranking military expenditures first, leaving domestic concerns (education, health, welfare) far behind. Unwittingly, we did exactly what President Eisenhower warned us not to do. A military-industrial complex overtook everything else, making us not more secure but more vulnerable.

In the face of this madness, Faulkner, a quiet, nervous, unassuming man from Mississippi, whose books were out of print in his own country, won the Nobel Prize in literature. In his Nobel address, he refused to surrender to pessimism, declined to embrace a future tainted with fear, which he called the basest of all emotions. Instead, Faulkner urged writers to focus on “the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself” and on “the old verities … the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed — love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.”

Absent these values and ideals, we will indeed be reduced to fear, and then the devil wins. Coming out of the Boston Marathon bombing tragedy and its ensuing mayhem, we could shout repeatedly that Boston is a tough, resilient town. True, and no reason to apologize for this.

But we need more. We need to frame this tragic story with two bookends, one of realism, one of aspiration. We need high inspirational values everyday. Those values were explicitly in action among the first responders who ran immediately toward the bombing victims. Perhaps the best symbol of how to carry on with courage and hope was this: As the bombs went off and the carnage became evident, runners just finishing 26 grueling miles kept on running to local hospitals to give blood.

If anything gives the devil his due, it is this: The wisdom that there is no greater love than that a person lay down his or her life for his brother or sister. Sympathy for the devil, if we must. But more than that, the old verities of human heart, indeed.

David Emblidge is associate professor is the department of writing, literature and publishing at Emerson College.
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