The first I heard about the Boston Marathon bombing was when my father called Monday evening to tell me my nephew was uninjured. My nephew goes to school in Boston, and had been watching the race, but not at the finish line. I’d been driving home from out of town, listening to CDs instead of the radio, so I hadn’t known a thing about it. Sometimes, having a weird schedule is useful.
The slight time lag in finding out about it didn’t make the event any easier to process. In fact, it brought up a whole lot of unpleasant memories of hearing about earlier disasters of one sort or another, from Sandy Hook and Columbine to 9/11, from the tsunamis in Japan and the Indian Ocean to Columbia and Challenger, all the way back to Kennedy’s assassination. Some of those horrors were man-made and deliberate; some were the result of terrible mistakes or accidents; some were just nature being nature. Apart from the fact that people died every time, there’s no connection between them except for the personal one: I remember the same sinking feeling combined with shock as I heard about each of them.
There are a whole lot of known psychological reactions to unexpected tragedy, starting with shock, disbelief, and feeling helpless, but I think the psychologists miss something when they look only at the emotions people have. They miss what people do.
People didn’t panic (which could have caused a lot more injuries, given the crowd). Some of them ran towards the explosion, and not only the police and firefighters and medical personnel who were on the job. A lot of people who were there as spectators did, too, and worked to help the injured. Some of them we know about, and some we don’t.
People who live in Boston signed on to web sites to offer their spare rooms to strangers who were stranded, or who suddenly needed a place to stay while a friend or family member was in the hospital. Others turned up with bottles of juice, water, and sweaters for the bewildered slower runners who weren’t allowed to finish because of the explosions. People who don’t live in Boston coordinated “random acts of pizza,” sending food to the police, firefighters, EMTs, anyone who needed it.
And people talked about what happened, and their reactions to it. Some of us aren’t in a place where we can do anything but talk…and watch the news, and hope that the death toll doesn’t rise and that they catch whoever planted the bombs. But even that little is doing something, of a sort.
And as far as I’m concerned, doing what one can is important, whether that’s running toward an explosion in order to help, walking calmly away from it so that the EMTs will be able to get in and do their job, or donating $10 worth of pizza to feed the people who are in the thick of things.