The Boston Marathon: One Buddhist's Response to the Unthinkable

The danger of opting for the storyline over a more complex and present truth is this: When we make up stories, we create an alternate reality. Rather than looking at our situation straight in the eye, we look at it from behind a protective lens.
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It has been quite a week here in Boston and everywhere, truthfully. The events of the Boston Marathon and beyond have been staggeringly painful, tragic, surreal, and difficult to even believe.

No one can make it less painful, tragic, or surreal -- but we can make it more believable. At such a time, finding a way to connect to this event, horrific though it is, is of the utmost importance. Otherwise it is all conceptual. Conceptuality is the gateway to non-humanity. When we see others as concepts rather than humans, we become capable of great violence.

When we watch the news, we get far more than reportage. We get storytelling. I'm not saying that journalists are lying (on purpose), but nonetheless, anything beyond, well, reporting what has, is, and may happen is a story. Journalists find it necessary to attach a narrative through-line to current events. If the purpose is to keep us paying attention or is an effort to make the insensible sensible, I do not know. But whether an outlet is right-wing, left-wing, or no-wing, we find ourselves in possession of a story ("disgruntled Muslim extremist creates bomb to prove point, younger brother helps," "Boston is a tough town, they'll get by," "Saudi national arrested,"and so on). I'm not saying that these statements are false (or true). I'm simply saying that those who make them may not actually know whereof they speak.

It all came nauseatingly home when, on April 16, one day after the bombing, a very calm and steely-eyed Anderson Cooper of CNN looked right into the camera and talked about how hard-nosed, no-nonsense Bostonians take care of their own (or something to that effect) as his segment wound to a dramatic close. I thought, he has no idea what he is talking about. He just made that up. I live here. Yes, some of us are hard-nosed and take care of our own. Some of us are softies who run away. Most of us do all of the above at various points in time. I truly believe that citizens of all stripes would react with the courage and kindness shown by Bostonians and marathoners. Why do we need to make a movie of our every reality? It is always much more complex than any narrative could convey.

The danger of opting for the storyline over a more complex and present truth is this: When we make up stories, we create an alternate reality. Rather than looking at our situation straight in the eye, we look at it from behind a protective lens that can reflect to us heroes, villains, victims, perpetrators, bystanders, and fools. We are hiding from the rawness of the situation.
When we do so, we also hide from our own hearts and thus from each other.

What we need now more than anything is to connect, human to human, to support each other through grief, pain, and rage, and, above all, above all, keep the situation on a human scale rather than a fictionalized one. It is only through this kind of heart-opening that we can prevent such things from happening again.

I'm not saying I know the solution to political or social problems. I most assuredly do not. But what I do know is this: If we could each agree to look at our heart's reaction first, and through the lens of journalists, pundits, experts, politicians, and well-meaning friends second, we would be creating the circumstances of a good human society, one that we can view with complexity and confusion, delight and terror -- and where we relate to one another rather than images of one another. When we choose image over humanity, as mentioned, we create a very dangerous situation. It's easy to bomb an image. A human, not so much.

Of course, like almost everyone, I was glued to the news on April 15 and 16. The marathon finish line is about a mile or so from our home. Everything I saw on the news was happening right down the street, although in my home all was quiet and normal. How could this be? I couldn't tolerate the dichotomy. So on April 16, I found myself walking through the Back Bay of Boston as close as I could to the marathon finish line. Newbury Street parallels Boylston Street (where the bombings took place) and so I walked from the top of Newbury to the bottom where it ends in the Public Garden, glimpsing Boylston Street at every corner. I just wanted to feel the cement under my feet, smell the air, look at the people, feel the vibe, take it in. I don't really know why. Other people were walking, too. We looked at each other and said hello. Every time I passed a person in uniform, I said, "thank you."

As I walked, I remembered another walk I took that was oddly similar. On September 12, 2001, I was driving from Washington to Boston. I had been scheduled for a book signing at the Borders in the World Trade Center on that day. As I passed the exit for the Tappan Zee Bridge, I found myself veering off to take it. I drove into downtown Manhattan and parked around Union Square. I walked south toward Houston Street, which was as far as pedestrians were allowed to go. The air was so heavy. Many, many others were out walking, too. We looked at each other. We said hello. Every time I passed anyone in uniform, I said, "thank you." Then I got in my car and drove home.

In the Buddhadharma, we talk about "three objects, three poisons, three seeds of virtue." The three objects are things we crave, despise, or choose to ignore. The three poisons are our reactions to these objects: craving, aggression, ignorance. And the three seeds of virtue are freedom from craving, aggression, ignorance.

In the face of such outrageous acts of violence, we have ample opportunity to identify these objects in our experience and feel our poisons. Thus, we also have the possibility of finding the three seeds of virtue. But how? For starters, we could turn toward our agony, hatred, and numbness. We could look at it all, say, "hello" and "thank you." This is a fantastic start.

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