Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Exploring the relationship between tragedy and humanity

As the country, if not the world, struggles to come to terms with what happened in Boston on Monday, the Internet is filled with people’s stories of how close they were to the blasts—how many minutes before or after 4:09 they crossed the finish line, where they were standing when the explosions went off, whom else they knew who was there.

What is it about tragedy that makes us all want to be so close to it, all the while feeling exceptionally grateful that it didn’t happen directly to us? I struggle with this question, because I’ve felt this compulsion to draw a thread of connection, however thin, between myself and those at the heart of so many recent tragedies that have befallen communities I’ve been a part of.

Last year’s Seattle coffeeshop shooting touched me deeply, because I ran by the Racer CafĂ© often, and because several of the victims were friends of a friend. The avalanche at Stevens Pass that took the lives of three talented skiers in February 2012 hit me hard as well, at least in part because Chris Rudolph and I had recently chatted about a story for Western Snowsports on Washington ski areas for which I was helping solicit photos. After 9-11, I shivered to learn that my dad’s colleague’s nephew was aboard the plane that hit the north tower.

Are these scenarios any more or less tragic, due to my flimsy connections to them? Certainly not. Did I really know any of the victims? No. Is it unfair to those who did, to their friends and families, to say that their deaths, through however many degrees of separation, hit close to home for me? Why do I even feel compelled to write about these tragedies in the first place, when in reality, they’re so far removed from my own life, linked only—in this case—by a shared passion for running long distances?

On September 11, 2001, I was sitting in a journalism class when the second tower fell. Our teacher seized the opportunity to have us all spend the class period writing articles on the events as they transpired, chronicling the reactions of those around us. Even for the sake of education, something about it didn’t feel quite right to me—this grabbing at others’ misfortunes and transforming them into “opportunities.” It was an aspect of journalism that, at the time, rubbed me the wrong way.

A year later, on the anniversary of 9-11, I wore an “I Love NY” shirt to class, among other red-white-and-blue accessories. A classmate indirectly berated my choice, ranting to the class about those who’d boiled the tragedy of others down to cheap commodities and material patriotism, who’d used it as an opportunity to draw attention to themselves … I felt deeply shamed, even as her accusations didn’t ring true with what I felt my motivations had been when I got dressed that morning. What I wanted was to express some sense of solidarity with those who’d experienced losses I couldn’t even fathom; perhaps my method of doing so was misguided, or amounted to little more than an empty gesture, but it was what made sense to me at the time.

Here I am more than a decade later, in the role of an actual journalist rather than a student one, working for a publication that, by its very nature, cannot ignore the events in Boston on Monday—no matter how much I’d like to crawl inside my Internet-less hole of a home, forget that any of it really happened and wait for my broken heart to mend.

But I can’t do that. This is my community, the magazine’s readership. Writers and athletes I’ve been working with on stories were there; our readers and subscribers were there; countless friends and acquaintances from the greater running community were there.

News and social media reports indicate that hundreds of runners and bystanders ran toward the blasts, rather than away from them. In the most literal sense, such actions are a display of our very human desire to help others, to experience solidarity in our increasingly isolated society. Many reports thus far are overwhelmingly about the heroic efforts of everyday people aiding one another, rather than conjecturing about the coward who caused it all; for this kind of journalism, I am grateful.

The truth is that people die, often in gruesome ways, every single day. Yes, I am deeply saddened that the Boston Marathon will never be the same again. (I still hope to run it someday.) I am saddened, too, that the running community as a whole has been tainted. I am even more heartbroken for the victims themselves and their families, whose lives have been irrevocably damaged.

Perhaps another of the great horrors of Monday is that the images plastered across the media of bloodied and dismembered bodies are ones that are in our papers every day, but rather than on the front page, they’re tucked into the backs, under headlines about countries that seem so far removed from our daily lives that we become immune to feeling anything for the atrocities they report. We flip the page and move on with our lives, and for our indifference, we feel a little less human—or, at least, I do.

Maybe, then, we find ways to articulate our tenuous personal connections to tragedies like Monday’s not because we seek attention, but because we want to feel empathy. In the midst of our generally comfortable lives, we want to experience the very things that most make us human—our connection to others, our compassion for the suffering of strangers, our sense of global community.

My heart goes out to all affected by Monday’s senseless tragedy. I do not wish to use it as an opportunity or soapbox—and perhaps, despite my best intentions, that is what I’m doing here anyway. But for what it’s worth … humanity, I still have faith in you. I am grateful to live in a beautiful world where love and community still far outshine tragedy.


  1. As "a person who runs" I also found the explosions at the Boston Marathon to be particularly jarring- mainly because I could put the event within a frame of reference that's very personal to me.

    As a psychologist (a.k.a a "professional people-watcher) I've noticed a couple of things about people and tragedy over the years. First of all, when tragedy strikes, it generally seems like a lot of people feel the need to (a) do something about it (donate money/volunteer/etc.) and (b) represent themselves to the rest of society as "someone who cares." This doesn't mean that they *don't* care- but I think there's this unwritten social rule that states "if someone is not visibly reacting to this event, then they must be a BAD person." Because if they were a good person, then they'd be showing that they care. Right?

    Well, not really- but we live in a world where people attribute the internal states of others to their external factors (i.e. the fundamental attribution error). So I think there's a certain amount of pressure lurking about under the surface, prompting people to show that they ARE affected by large (or small) scale tragedies, that they DO care, and that they are NOT bad people.

    I do agree that people probably personally capitalize on these larger, more public tragedies in order to make their peace with the general amount of sulkiness that exists in the world around us. But honestly, if we were to focus on all of the sadness and injustice that occurs in the world on a daily basis, we would all continually just be sucked into an endless dark hole of depression. And I don't know if there are a lot of human psyches than can handle that.

    My apologies by the way, if I was the one that made that comment about 9/11. I don't remember saying that, but I do remember not being particularly psyched about the public reaction (although my issue was more with people using this particularly tragedy to justify selfish, unreasonable actions and/or international bloodshed). But I suppose we all react in our own ways...

    1. Hey Nat,

      Thanks for the very thoughtful reply. I appreciate your reflections and insights.

      And no, you weren't the one who made the comment way back when :) but thanks anyway. There was absolute validity to the comment that was made, and I should have been able to take it at face value, rather than personally - but alas, I can be a sensitive little bear sometimes.

      All good food for thought.

  2. Hi Yitka,
    I can relate to your thoughts; I wrote and published a post about the Boston tragedy just a few days ago, and even though I tried to genuinely express my sorrow, I couldn't help feeling slight pangs of guilt. Why? Because I questioned my motives in why I was really writing about it. Did I write it because I am a writer and every writer is always looking for an audience, or did I write it because I truly care? I'd like to think I truly care. Still, I couldn't help notice that the internet was flooded with blog posts by runner-writers, who also wished to publicly share their thoughts and condolences. I'm sure for the most part, that people don't see anything wrong with this, but I can't help wondering....what are our true motives? Or more importantly, what are MY true motives? Your words above: "something about it didn’t feel quite right to me—this grabbing at others’ misfortunes and transforming them into “opportunities” encourage me to always consider WHY I want to write about certain topics or events. I hope I can always keep my motives pure and honest.

    Also, I was one of those runners who donned a race shirt the day after the bombing, in response to a widely-circulated FB post which suggested the idea. I jumped on board immediately, determined to show my support, but after reading Nat-Bat's comments above, I think she paints a fairly accurate picture of why many of us chose to honor the victims in this way. Our gesture was probably more motivated by a need to show that we care, and that we are "good" people (the unwritten social rule that Nat-Bat mentioned), although I would like to believe that even if that was the case, our actions offered at least a little bit of comfort to those in Boston who were directly affected by the tragedy.