Bringing Personal Meaning to National Tragedies

Terror at the Boston Marathon

Terror at the Boston Marathon

I had a sense of déjà vu after the bombing in Boston on Monday.  It brought me right back to 9/11, Sandy Hook, and Columbine and was akin to a seismic shift in my world.   How about you?

Almost 3000 died in the 9/11 attacks, 26 including 20 children at Sandy Hook, and 3 in Boston but with over 170 casualties.  The images from each event are of unspeakable loss, senseless violence and lives changed forever.  No doubt, such catastrophic events not only impact the victims and their families but the whole country as well.   After 9/11, the whole world mourned with us.

As awful as those events are, what is also equally, and possibly more disconcerting is the number of people who die each year due to accidental death, suicide and homicide.  According to the CDC, over 120,000 and 38,000 died in 2011 from accident and suicide, respectively.  The good news is, homicide fell below the top 15 causes of death starting in 2010 to a mere 16,259.   Combined, that’s approximately 3 people per minute who die from these seemingly preventable, tragic reasons.

But why do Boston, Sandy Hook and 9/11 feel so much worse compared to the literally scores of people dying from preventable tragedies each day?

I’m sure the reasons are many.  But for me, the other thing I mourned when the twin towers came down in 2011 was not only the 3000 lost lives but the feeling that my world would never be the same.

The reality is, of course, that the world has always been a dangerous place.  Up until 9/11 though, I was able to insulate myself from that reality.  Even with scores dying from preventable deaths every day, and right here in my own community, I was firmly and undeniably invested in the concept that the world is a safe and logical place.  Maintaining the façade of this belief is sort of like a James Bond movie – it requires a suspension of reality despite all logic or available evidence.  In this reality, bad things only happen to people who are doing the wrong thing, are in the wrong place or are with the wrong people.  Though I never went so far as to blame the victim, a part of me believed that.  It couldn’t happen to me.

Maybe that’s one reason, in addition to the loss of life, why Boston, 9/11, Virginia Tech and Columbine are all so upsetting to us.  They all did happen to people just like me.  Just like us.   Now I have to confront, head on, my delusion about being in control of my world, each time it happens.  And it’s happening at a rate of what seems like every few weeks.  More frequently if you include the international community.

Intellectually, I knew control was an illusion.  In my heart, for years, I deluded myself that it was also my reality.    So, in addition to 3000 lost souls, on 9/11 I am mourning the loss of my illusion of control over my environment, my loss of innocence.  Each tragedy thereafter serves as salt in that wound.

The world has not changed.  The world was not markedly different on 9/11 compared to 8/11, or on Monday compared to Sunday.   I have changed.   Does that mean I should act differently?  Feel differently about myself or the world?  The world is the same – so do I become paralyzed by fear and anger now anyway?

I think it’s foolish to take unnecessary risks;  these days we need additional precautions.  I’m not going to travel to Syria or walk in unsafe neighborhoods.  I will still lock my house and car doors.  We should still pursue justice for the guilty for the sake of everyone.  But I refuse to let someone else determine how I should feel in this world – whether I walk with peace, love and forgiveness, or fear, hate and vengeance.   I choose to keep my personal power and look for ways to be a positive influence, despite local, national or international events.  I don’t have any control, but that doesn’t mean I can’t take action – write a letter, donate money, volunteer, speak my mind, donate blood, attend a rally.

In addition, I believe it’s also important to remember that if we are in mourning, it is because we have been blessed with a precious gift.  Even though my feeling of almost complete safety was a delusion, it also represents that in this country we enjoy an unparalleled level of affluence and security, even now.  Our brethren in the Middle East do not enjoy even our current level of security, and haven’t for generations.  How can we resent the loss of a privilege that too few in the world enjoy?

It’s also up to each one of us to create meaning out of a senseless loss of life  and our own loss of  innocence.  The Sandy Hook parents have rallied to create peaceful reform in response to their unimaginable loss instead of seeking vengeance and hate.    We too have the choice as to whether to perpetuate violence – whether physical, psychological, financial or emotional, or to foster peace, love and healing.  

We also have the choice as to whether to live in the past with our anger,  in the future with our fear…. or in the present savoring each precious moment on earth.   Yes, feeling that we have no control makes each day feel more precious.  Like the control we never had, our brief time on earth has always been precious, even if we have taken that time for granted.  Maybe, in exchange for our loss of innocence we gain a new appreciation and awareness for what we’ve had all along.



8 thoughts on “Bringing Personal Meaning to National Tragedies

  1. This is a great post…I think for me the reason tragedies such as 9/11 and the Boston bombing are more heart-wrenching than all the accidents is because they were purposeful acts of violence. It makes me ill to think someone planned and carried out such awful deeds.

    1. It is nauseating Denise, isn’t it? Suicide and homicide are also purposeful, aren’t they? Particularly wrenching to me is suicide by a teen or adolescent – parents and educators need to be educated on depression and how to identify and treat it! These suicides are often disguised as overdose or car accident so the number is probably even higher.

      1. I couldn’t agree more that education -and treatment of- depression (and mental health in general) needs to be better. Much better.
        As a society, we continue to treat symptoms, rather than the root of the problem.
        Focusing on depression, and its root cause, not just medication, would be a giant first step. So many other ‘symptomatic behaviors’ belie the underlying depression. We have a lot of work to do in this area.

      2. Oh boy, clearly we both feel passionately about this! A big hurdle to doing that is the remaining social stigma of mental illness or even feeling that you have to be nuts before going to see a therapist.

        We teach our kids oral hygiene, phy ed, diet etc but not the habits of emotionally healthy people. It’s not intuitive given the pressures and expectations from society that are often unspoken. We need to teach the equivalent of emotional hygiene so people can learn to be emotionally healthy from a young age.

        My next blog!!!!!

        Thanks for this discussion Denise. I enjoy sharing ideas with you.

  2. Lots of sound, useful advice and wisdom in your essay! I can tell it came from your heart. You need to re-publish this every few months; it’s worth reading anytime, good timea or bad times!

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