Finding humanity in the smoke of tragedy

Flowers, flags and balloons at a memorial in Boston near the site of Monday's explosions.
Wang Lei/Xinhua /Landov

By Nathaniel Eggleston

This week has brought out so many emotions in all of us. It’s been ugly. It’s been a wake-up call. It’s been the week from hell. It’s been a rallying cry. Hopefully, the turbulence has subsided and, for now at least, we can take this time to begin healing and understanding everything that has happened.

But how do we go about processing a series of events so jarring to our way of life? How do we begin to readjust to life when these kinds of events are part of our recent history? I can’t answer that question for everyone. I’m not a counselor or therapist. I’m just another human trying to cope.

I struggle to find sense in the motivation behind the bombers’ actions that would, in a quest to bring attention to some cause or plight, forever alter the lives of innocents and shatter the sense of security that has lulled us into complacency. I’m not talking about being vigilant about our physical security or having more scanners and frisk-down searches at public events. I’m talking about a different kind of complacency.

This week we’ve seen thoughtless posts on social media from men and women we call our leaders who, in a quest for some I-told-you-so moment, offended not only the memory of those lost but, made us, as Americans, look heartless and cold. Yet in stark contrast we saw ordinary, everyday, men and women, spectators and first responders who became valiant heroes and selfless defenders; running to the rescue of the unknown, putting their lives at risk to uphold a standard of selfless humanity that is all too often ignored except in times of crisis; two sides of the same coin.

An explosion at a fertilizer plant in the town of West, Texas. Photo Credit Unknown.
That is the miraculous thing about human nature. While we are bound to our animal and instinctual behaviors our humanity permits us choice and control. In the minutes that followed the blasts on Boylston Street incredible feats of human excellence, unabashed selflessness, and unassuming greatness rushed in to save lives. In the words of Fred Rogers we saw “the helpers.” This scene was repeated in Waco, Texas in the aftermath of the terrible explosion at a local fertilizer plant. Some of the first confirmed deaths there were first responders rushing into the fire. In those initial moments our instinct to survive and help our neighbors triumphs over every other emotion. We are bound, not just by survival instinct, but also by the instinct to nurture and lift up, to rescue our people, stranger or loved one.

We are all one in the smoke that lingers after tragedy strikes. No matter where we are in the world when we hear the news of horror we send up a prayer, make a wish, and extend our energy in the hope that somehow our best intentions will give strength to those in need.

Then comes the speculation, the questioning. Our instinct wants vengeance, justice, retribution.  But revenge is an ugly beast, the polar opposite of the benevolence our humanity just displayed.  Columnists, TV and radio personalities, and pundits of all philosophies offered voice to the concerns, fears, and dark aspirations of every American. 
Got you asshole!!”

I’ll be the first to admit that for a brief instant I felt these same emotions. I was angry.  Then a came across a meme on Facebook with the words “an eye for an eye only leaves the whole world blind.” When it comes to the consequences for wrongdoing, we have a choice. That’s the great thing about humanity, we, as conscious, sentient, reasoning beings, can seek out those guilty of crimes and do the same to them – or – we can seek them out and find the root of their action and from that learn to better ourselves and offer hope that in the future the same egregious acts will not be repeated.

Makeshift memorial in Newtown, Connecticut. Mario Tama/Getty Images
In the wake of the Newtown Massacre, where twenty young boys and girls and six of their teachers lost their lives, we all cried out for something to be done about gun violence. We as a society made a choice to not seek vengeance but rather to learn from our ways and improve our nation. On Tuesday, the senate voted against that action. They selfishly chose greed and power over doing what is right, what 90% of Americans supported. This only added further insult to injury as only 12 hours before a gun battle broke out on the MIT campus and one brave police officer lost his life. Former Congresswoman, Gabrielle Giffords has taken her fury and mined it into the fuel that continues to inspire positive change. She had a choice, just like we do now.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is in custody. But as of yet, is only a suspect. American justice relies on the neutrality and surety of evidence-based convictions.  My emotions might tell me that this is the mastermind behind a gruesome attack and he deserves the very fire of hell itself. The media, though attempting to fain neutrality, will present every minutiae of this case for years to come and may convict Tsarnaev in the court of public opinion before he, a naturalized American citizen, even steps into the halls of justice.  Here’s where our humanity comes in again. From all accounts this young man was a pleasant, happy, respectful person. While some are gathering outside with pitchforks, torches, a rope and ipads to film it, let’s take a moment to try and understand what happened in the life of this youth. What led to this kind of 180? We can reach deep within our animal instinct and wish evil upon him or in this moment, we as a people can show how, even in the face of unadulterated terror, we are still good, not better-than, but simply good. We have a choice.

This week has been one hell of a week for us. It felt like one blow after another. For some of us everything has changed. F
or most of us our lives will go on with little change. We’ll be dismayed by the challenges in D.C., terrified by the deaths in Waco, and horrified by the actions of two young men in Boston. But Monday morning the sun will still rise and our responsibilities will still be there and we’ll move on. The catch is - we have choice.

This week we’ve seen our share of violence. We’ve seen our efforts to curb it defeated. We’ve witnessed death on an inexplicable scale. But we’re not alone. The big picture in the world shows us: an earthquake in China, a car bomb in Iraq, a shoot-out in Somalia, a young girl raped in India, and Syria is 18 months into a bloody civil war. It’s all terrible news yet from the ashes of that destruction the smoke that rises somehow unites us. It brings us all together regardless of where we are, what language we speak, what sins are in our past or what greatness we hold. We are all one despite and because of the tragedy. The key is to not forget that unifying spirit once the smoke has cleared. The bombing at the international Boston Marathon wasn’t just an attack on Americans. It was an attack on our very humanity. It was an attack on Kenyan, French, Canadian, Ethiopian, Mexican, Columbian, Japanese and many more runners and spectators. In this world of so much tragedy wouldn’t it be tragic to forget that we’re all human?

We can choose the instinct to be vengeful and violent, even in the smallest way – or we can choose our humanity, choose to be good, to be benevolent, to be selfless everyday.  We can turn our anger into action and our outrage into outreach. That is what is resilient and grand about the human race. That is the vital lesson that we must learn. There is opposition in all things and with every bad day there is a great one just around the corner, it’s our choice what to make of it.

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