What is there to say about something like the Boston Marathon bombing? There is no sane way to reconcile the gruesome images, the suffering and destruction with our need to believe that we are safe. We are privileged enough in this country to think that this sort of thing does not happen here. Once I confirmed that everyone I love in Boston was ok, my real-world connection to the event faded. But this morning, my mind and heart are still bound up in the news.
Being housebound makes me vulnerable in an odd way. On the one hand, I am remarkably safe in my home and neighborhood. I rarely go in to the city or to places with large crowds. But on the other hand, I am an automatic audience for big news events. I don’t have a meeting to go to, or kids to pick up from school, or any other demands on my attention. Most of the time, it’s just me, the tv, Facebook and Twitter. If I choose to tune in, I end up vicariously experiencing these events.
I watched the Columbine shootings unfold. For a week after 9/11, I only turned off the tv to sleep. Six years ago today, I followed the Virginia Tech shootings on CNN, and I held my breath between the phone calls from my brother who was there. It has gotten to the point where I start to cry as soon as I learn about an incident like these. Sometimes I have the self-discipline to avoid the media if I think the news will be too upsetting. I stayed off Twitter and Facebook for days after the Newtown shootings, and I still have not seen any footage from that day. I long ago decided that tv news is shallow, and frequently borderline moronic, so it’s easy to avoid that. But if I pay attention – and Twitter makes that incredibly easy – I get sucked in to following every update and rumor.
Emotional shock and distress quickly induces a cascade of physical exhaustion, pain, and brain fog. The more I watch, the worse I feel. Compounding the simple stress is an overwhelming feeling of powerlessness. I am trapped in my home, alone with the images of people who need help. There is nothing I can do. I remember the despair I felt after 9/11 because I couldn’t simply drive to New York and pitch in. After the Virginia Tech shootings, my brother started volunteering for an emergency services provider. I am limited to donating to the Red Cross or knitting afghan squares. This is not a substitute for directly helping people face to face. Watching people suffer, and being unable to do anything about it, feels like sandpaper against my heart.
This morning, I’m thinking about the people who will now join the ranks of the disabled. There are reports of people who lost legs or feet. Sure, they’ll get prosthetic limbs and rehab and lots of attention. But their lives will never be the same. Perhaps there will be people disfigured by the blasts, or people who develop post-traumatic stress disorder. Some of them may have great family support and health insurance, but others may not. In the moment of the explosions, everything changed for these people. They have to run a different marathon now. This is the marathon of doctors and procedures and medication and paperwork and learning to live with a changed body. This is the marathon of people helping in the immediate aftermath and then fading away and going back to their lives. This is the marathon of answering the “how are you?” and “it could have been worse” comments. This is the marathon of the sick and injured.
I don’t know what it’s like to be the victim of any crime, let alone a crime like this. But I do know about suffering and endurance and navigating a changed life. The real crisis is not the moment of explosion. It’s everything that comes after. I know a little bit about that marathon, and I wish I could help other people on that path. But my own marathon keeps me imprisoned, acutely aware that others are suffering and completely unable to help them.