I’m at a loss as to how to properly address yesterday’s tragedy here in Boston, on Patriots’ Day. Following the attacks at the marathon and a nearby scare for our neighbors at the JFK Library, our university was closed yesterday afternoon and for most of the day today as a precaution. I’ve been wondering how, as teachers, we’ll get back to normal so soon after the event. Do we ignore it, and go on as if nothing happened, or address it head on? I don’t know, and will probably make some gut decision during tomorrow’s morning commute.
I can guess how provincial these musings seem. They are routine now: we are all Bostonians, or Americans, or Hokies, or Haitians, or Pakistanis, or Laotians. Tragedies happen daily around the world, some by accident, some by malice. Ideally we should view all of them with equal sadness. But in reality it is the local ones that strike us the hardest. We cannot love all seven billion people equally, however idealistic we may be. Universal love is, if not impossible, at least very, very difficult. Empathy is most easily extended to people who remind us of ourselves, who travel the same streets and subways, and share our accents and favorite sports teams.
But we can do better. We often overcome barriers of ideology, age, language, or physical appearance, recognizing the similarities we share with others. Matt Ridley once wrote that “similarity is the shadow of difference.” Both exist simultaneously, but the one that resides forefront in our consciousness is a matter of focus. At the level of the very small, we can empathize with other individuals by focusing on the similarities (it doesn’t take much, unless you are a psychopath). But when groups view other groups in some abstract sense, as a barrier, or as a monolithic enemy, or a means to an end, then empathy evaporates. That doesn’t seem to take much either, tragically.
Wherever we derive meaning — religion, friendship, family, science — I think we can all agree that life is already inherently fragile and painful enough. We don’t need the added burdens caused by people recklessly injecting their hatred, uninvited, into the lives of others. I would hope that whenever someone gets the urge to think that their views are so righteous that they justify killing other innocent people, then that would be the perfect time to take a serious, long look in the mirror and ask themselves how they got so far off course. Though I know how frequently that hope will be met by disappointment.
Many times on this blog, I’ve described life in a biological sense, as being the pursuit of genetic continuation. We’re born, grow up, then get a chance to pass on our genes (or not) only to start the cycle over again, indefinitely. To some people, that is a cold, materialistic view. But I see it differently. I think it is a beautiful perspective, knowing that we have an ancient chain of ancestors – with an almost countless number of links – standing behind us. To me, this perspective underscores how ephemeral each individual life is and how incalculably minute were the odds against any of us from being here today.
In the case of the Patriots’ Day bombings, I cannot help but get infuriated over someone violating another person’s right to simply live. Death is not the issue, because death is unavoidable for all of us (sorry, but it’s true). The issue is injustice. Intentionally stealing someone else’s time to exist is abhorrent because it is irreparable. We can restore confidence, fix buildings, mend wounds, and repair city streets and businesses. But, once lost, you cannot get a life back. Nobody has the right to take that away, especially not from the very young and innocent. And certainly not for some flawed, stained political ideology.