Our hearts were broken this week when the spectacle of the Boston Marathon, normally an opportunity to celebrate the human spirit, became a spectacle of violence as two bombs shattered the race and the lives of nearly two hundred innocent bystanders and their families – including the tragic deaths of three people, one a child. Those bombs also shattered the sense of peace and safety in one of America’s most historic cities. As authorities look for the perpetrators, the rest of us look for answers. And there are very few answers to find.
Sadly, the painful struggle to find answers to a tragedy like this often becomes so intense that, lacking any real answers, people begin to make up answers that fit their own world view. So speculations about suspects and their skin color lead to assumptions that militant Muslims must be to blame – and so a Muslim doctor gets attacked in Boston today, even though she personally had nothing to do with what happened, and there is so far no evidence to suggest that any Muslim had anything to do with these events at all. And so an already heart-shattering and soul-piercing tragedy is compounded.
My years of ministry as a priest has put me many times in the position of accompanying people who are driven by life’s circumstances to seek answers to difficult questions about suffering. I think that the deep human desire to make our lives meaningful – a desire that is indeed holy, and that is part and parcel of our nature as spiritual beings – leads us to conclude that there must be meaning in everything, including horrible things like violent death or sudden, tragic illness. But as the biblical Book of Job seeks to tell us, it is often impossible to find meaning in such events in a way that allows us to answer the question, “Why?” But over and over, I have seen people so desperately needing to answer that question that they invent a host of answers that may satisfy them at some level, but which often create more pain for others.
I have come to the conclusion that the real meaning of such events cannot come in a nice, neat, why-answering package. Rather, the real meaning surfaces out of how we, as wounded human beings, respond to these events. If, for example, we respond to this week’s tragedy in Boston by lashing out against those of whom we are suspicious in anger and pain; if we respond to this week’s events by becoming more fearful and guarded, then we have in some sense taken on the consciousness of those who planted those bombs in the first place. For reasons we do not yet know, they chose to lash out violently against innocent people. If we respond to their violence with more violence, whether verbal, spiritual, or physical, then perhaps they have gotten what they really wanted in the first place: for all of us to live in the kind of fearful, angry place that led them into their violent plan.
If we do not respond to the Boston tragedy with spiritual skill, then the violence which we saw on that day can multiply into a myriad of violent thoughts, words, and actions, some of which we will see, but much of which will remain unseen to most of us. Yet it will be there, raising, if you will, the quotient of violence within our society — a society that kills more people violently than any other “first world” nation on earth, and that has the highest rate of imprisonment in the world. If our response to what happened in Boston is the multiplication of violence in all of its forms, then the meaning behind the tragedy becomes simply this: the Boston Marathon bombings are another sign of our collective descent into more and more violence.
If, however, we respond with spiritual skill, then rather than having our hearts hardened by this horror, we can allow our hearts to break open, and we can respond by working harder to be compassionate with ourselves and one another. We can look at the seeds in our society that give rise to the violence inherent in our culture, and the seeds in ourselves that lead us to respond with violent words and actions toward others. If this is our response to what happened in Boston, then the meaning of that tragedy is something different: it becomes a sign of the moment we redoubled our efforts to deepen our compassion, and it becomes a reminder to us of the need to live more compassionately so that we might contribute more peace to our society.
Our hearts go out to all the people who were injured and killed, and to their families. That is as it should be: a natural movement of compassion toward those who have suffered so unfairly. Let that compassion help us to expand that movement beyond that circle to include others who are caught up in violence, both as its perpetrators and victims. Let that compassion help us expand that movement to encircle the whole of the human family not only in Boston, not only in our country, but throughout the world.
And let this tragedy that we have so clearly seen help us to see the tragedies that we usually do not see: like the thousands upon thousands killed by gun violence in this country each year; like the 16,000 children who die in the world every day because they don’t have enough to eat; like the 14,000 who have died in Syria; like the 160,000 who died in the Iraq War; like the 300,000 who died during the conflict in Darfur.
Our culture is steeped in violence. Our world generates thousands of victims of violence and tragedy every day. Our world, our country, each one of us need more compassion. There is no time like the present to begin cultivating it. And we should not need a tragedy close to home to remind us.