Now that the terror has subsided and the sense of emergency has worn off, the second-guessing can begin. Reflection is healthy. Learning from our failures and mistakes is an essential part of life. I suggest that we look back on last week with compassion and respect for those who had to make decisions in the midst of confusion and mystery.
One conversation I’ve had a few times in the last few days revolves around the “Boston Strong” spirit that was vaunted by so many (myself included). A recent column in the Boston Globe asked the classic question, “Why does it take a disaster to bring out the best in us?” The implication is that once life gets “back to normal” we will forget to reach out, to be kind, and to care about people who are in need.
It’s true that we won’t continue to see headlines about brave volunteers and first-responders. The sense of community spirit that united us in the face of disaster will dissipate. But I would argue that it’s not that we only become better in challenging times. In fact, we are able to be good at these times because we practice it every day.
First responders were not doing this for the first time. The medical personnel who had trained for such a disaster were better because of that training. Those who had dealt with trauma victims in the past were better prepared to assist. Just as the marathon runners had trained to run 26.2 miles, practice made everyone better.
The volunteers who ran toward the explosion were people who had, in many cases, been tested before. The ordinary people who offered food, shelter, and warm clothes to runners were the same people who offered oranges, drinks of water and cheers along the marathon route. These were not random acts of kindness. They were routine acts of kindness. These were extraordinary moments, and they were identical to the ordinary moments we experienced before the marathon and will continue to experience in the future.
At Temple Ohabei Shalom, which is located on Beacon Street in Brookline right on the marathon route, runners were invited to come in for food and shelter after the race was stopped. The temple was able to feed the two hundred people who came through their doors with the cereal from the food pantry there. In other words, their everyday practice made it possible for them to open their hands in this emergency.
Our chants of “Boston Strong” might strike some as self-congratulatory and perhaps overblown. It’s true that we have much more to do to make our city a better place. It’s true that many people are still suffering from the trauma that ensued from the attack and will continue to suffer as the healing process takes its time. It’s also true that the gun violence that plagues our neighborhoods year-round deserves more attention from our city’s protectors.
But I don’t experience “Boston Strong” as a self-serving message. It’s a statement of gratitude. In times of disaster, we become grateful for the most basic gift: our lives. When people fear for their lives, they tend to rethink their priorities. Basic values and principles rise to the surface. Gratitude – for our lives and for those in our community who serve, protect, respond, heal, care and support -- is part of the healing message that we need to hear and to repeat and to continue to live by.
What everyone seems to be worried about is that these noble sentiments will fade over time. But if we take time to reflect on the practices that sustained us during these harrowing days, perhaps we will realize that we are better than that. Our caring and compassion need not fade. They just won’t make the front page of the paper.
Let’s rise to the challenge. Let’s hold on to kindness and compassion in the days to come. Let’s keep our wallets open and share with those in need. Let’s practice open-heartedness, even as new information about the suspect comes to light, pushing us to judge harshly.
Let us be slow to anger and full of compassion.
Rabbi Ira Eisenstein, son-in-law and student of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, offers us words to live by, in troubled times and in the routine of everyday life:
"We are engaged in a process of determining what makes life worthwhile. [If you ask me] 'What is the meaning of life?' I don't know. Nobody knows. Especially not with a capital M, capital L. But if you ask me--How can I lead a meaningful life?--then I have a lot to say."
I know he’s not alone. Following the Marathon bombing, we all have a lot to say. More importantly, we have demonstrated in our simple daily practices how to lead a meaningful life. May we continue to bring gratitude, compassion and generosity to the ordinary and extraordinary moments alike.