“We cannot do great things. We can only do little things with great love.”
In a few days the Boston Marathon will once again take place. Living in the vicinity and working two blocks from the finish line, the past month has been a mix of excitement, anticipation and fear.
Last year during the public school vacation week, we were in the grip of a lockdown in the search of the bombing suspects. It was surreal. It also capped an unusual year in the life of my girls, who are coming of age in the wake of unfathomable tragedies: Aurora movie theater shooting, Sandy Hook massacre, and the Boston Marathon bombing. Is there any place that is safe anymore, uttered my older daughter.
It’s an emotional time here in Boston. There have been daily stories on local radio and in the paper which brings me to tears every time I get in the car.
Boston is indeed strong. The story of Rick and Dick Hoyt, local father-and-son wheelchair team, is one for all to behold. They’ve been running the marathon since 1981. They were supposed to run their final race last year but never made it to the finish line. They were stopped at mile 23. The father is now 73 and his son, who has cerebral palsy, is 52. It’s a partnership that has changed their lives and the lives of many people who live with a disability. They are back to finish the race this year in honor of the fallen and injured.
For some the memory of last year’s events will still seem fresh. Those grieving lost loved ones, first responders re-telling their experiences on the scene and spectators remembering the agony of waiting to locate their lost friends and family.
Yet Boston is still strong. Many will come out to support the runners and Boston this year in spite of their safety concerns. There will be many conversations. “Were you in Boston when it happened? Where were you last year when you found out? Did you know anyone?” And it got me thinking about how we talk about tragedy, re-experience the traumatic events and how we can still hold on to hope and joy.
Having compassionate conversations is a good place to start. For one, the mind doesn’t know the difference between an actual event and one it sees on a screen or imagines in all its gory detail. Instead, the brain assumes that real danger exists. It automatically responds to these dark images and activates the emotional center of the brain. The body responds with a fight or flight survival reaction, marinating the body with stress hormones. We can end up completely freaked out.
What do we do? We need to focus — in the spirit of compassion — on positive experiences in the wake of tragedy; the stories of personal determination and triumph. Those who didn’t get to finish last year’s race who will return to cross that finish line, the injured who are learning to walk with prosthetics and new runners inspired to race the Boston Marathon in solidarity. Your body and heart will respond in kind. It’s both healing in the moment and it nurtures resilience over time.
Modern neuroscience is showing that we can re-train the brain by noticing and interrupting the flow of fears and negative thoughts. It’s not about replacing these natural reactions, it’s how we can hold in our minds both the difficult memory AND the good things that have happened. We can appreciate the sense of community, for instance, and show compassion toward ourselves and others. We can reflect on the joyful moments and the new hope that life has revealed. This helps us build new neural circuits connected to optimism, happiness and empathy.
Dr. Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman write about compassionate conversations in their wonderful book, Words Can Change Your Brain: 12 Conversation Strategies to Build Trust, Resolve, Conflict, and Increase Intimacy:
If you intensely focus on a word like “peace or “love,” the emotional centers in the brain calm down. The outside world hasn’t changed at all, but you will feel more safe and secure… Certain words like “peace” or love,” may actually have the power to alter the expression of genes throughout the brain and body, turning them on and off in ways that lower the amount of physical and emotional stress we normally experience throughout the day.
This is not to say we dismiss the reality of traumatic events. Instead, we can intentionally, and with honesty and wholeheartedness, zoom out and see a bigger landscape. The bravery of first responders, the outpouring of support, makeshift memorials, donations, calls from distant friends and family showing concern, support of gun control legislation, peace initiatives and violence prevention in schools can all encourage a positive and hopeful outlook.
So when my daughter labors over the impossible question, “Why would someone do this?” There is a new way to guide the conversation to be more productive.
Will she feel safer? Maybe. Maybe not. Will she feel more hopeful about humanity? I believe so. Will she realize that she can a play a role somehow? Definitely – by cheering on the runners this year in a sea of supporters, that’s how.