Thoughts on Moving Forward from the Boston Marathon Bombing, Perspectives from a Bostonian

Dan Bolton


In light of the events of the last week, which I'm sure have captivated most people's attention, an appropriate question I've heard and read many people asking is how does one begin to carry on with life as usual after a week of carnage and terror? I felt I would be remiss if I simply went back to business as usual without mentioning them at all, particularly since I am always talking big about the merits of people using adversity to make themselves stronger.

The bombing in Boston presents a formidable challenge this this premise. Due to the sensitivity and personal nature of each individual's emotional process after a traumatic event the only way I thought appropriate to address this was to speak some of my own feelings and experience. Self-revealing in therapy is a controversial topic among therapists. Some feel that it can bring therapeutic breakthroughs for the client, some believe it is not to be done at any cost. Sometimes when an experience is so unspeakable, the therapist is the one that must start the process of speaking. When the experience is collective, like this attack, the therapist may provide a model for how to begin to put such intense emotions into words.

The Boston Bombing hit home, literally. I was there, 2 miles away from the finish line where the explosions took place. Not in the epi-center by any means, but close enough to transform what has been a joyful event of triumph and celebration into one now scarred by those two explosions. My son and I go to see the marathon every year. It has been a tradition the past seven years for us, an event we cherish and share. Then, as if the explosions weren't enough, as the week progressed the terror crept even closer to home. I live about a mile from where Patrol Officer Collier was killed at MIT, have driven by the 7-11 where the carjacking occurred so many times I can't count, and was about a mile or so again from where the gunfight ensued and bombs were detonated in Watertown. The week and especially last 48 hours were rife with tremendous tension, fear, and utter shock that this was unraveling all around the place I consider home. To top it off, once authorities revealed the identity of the suspects, the younger brother attended a high school here in Cambridge where I have worked with many kids over the years. A neighbor of mine who works as a tutor actually tutored the younger brother and like everybody else who knew him thought he was a nice kid. If that wasn't enough I also learned that the older brother trained at the Wai Kru Mixed Martial Arts Center, a gym where I had taken a couple of classes only a year ago.

Other than "Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims of this tragedy..." after terror strikes, we don't always receive a lot of guidance about how to begin to express our emotions. What we heard a lot this week was "B strong, Boston Strong, Be Strong." It's a good message, with more emotional guidance for sure, but I think it can often be misinterpreted and end up alienating those who do not otherwise identify themselves as fighters. Not everyone processes helplessness and powerlessness in the same way. I say be strong, yes, but be strong in a reasonable way. Let me clarify. After a traumatic event like this, fear can takeo over and make us think or do things that are not rational or reasonable. If you, friends, or loved ones refuse to do simple normal things because it might bring up memory of that event, that is not reasonable. Face your fear and get back to doing what you normally do. Doing familiar things can be really grounding. It's a good sign that life can and will go on as normal. It takes strength to do that.

The night after the bombings, my son did not even want to talk to friends calling him to ask if he was ok. He thought even the act of engaging in conversation with them would make him think of the explosion, and that he would have to relive the terror all over again. I encouraged him not to avoid it, and just call, giving him a simple script to say "Thanks for checking in, lets talk later this week." Once he was on the phone his emotions changed quickly from fear to comfort as he ended up talking for a while with his friend about their upcoming field trip. It was very grounding to go into a situation fearing he would have to re-experience the terror, but end up talking about benign, everyday things with his friend. It brought him out of his head where all of these huge fears and ideas were brewing, and that short talk gave him the reassuring signal that normal life, as he had known it before, still does exist. Maybe differently now, but it is not completely lost, as our irrational mind might lead us to believe after a traumatic event. That's the most important message we, and our kids need to take from this. It's horrible, it happened, and we must accept that. Accept the feelings that come with it, anger, sadness, confusion, and the powerlessness, and that we need to process all of those feelings. But, maintaining movement in the direction of doing everyday things is important part of the recovery.

The next step is regaining your personal sense of power, which is challenging after it has been violated and stripped away from us with such malevolence. A woman who is a mentor of mine this week wrote, "Personal power is about acting from what is right for you as a person and as part of a larger community. It is about clear-thinking and purposeful action... Personal power is about accepting what is as quickly as possible and getting back to your own center. It is only from this powerful center that we can make any changes that need to be made as a result of events before us. Sometimes there is a change to be made. Sometimes there isn’t."

In the book The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle writes "So whenever your relationship is not working, whenever it brings out the "madness" in you and in your partner, be glad. What was unconscious is being brought up to the light. It is an opportunity for salvation… whatever it is know the reality of that moment and hold the knowing." This week has certainly brought out a certain "madness" and it did bring out a pivotal opportunity to bring about awareness and cultivate effective action. Some people recommended just turning off the TV and stop the madness by resisting the breaking news that never stopped breaking. With the suspect approximately one mile from where I live, that seemed to be a luxury I could not afford. Furthermore, my surrounding area now a war zone, the immediacy of this moment, or the Now, though negative, uncovered a really great opportunity to change something I had not felt settled about for many years. This series of events connected me directly to a sense of community that I had not felt since after 9/11. I have long yearned for that feeling of collectivity since, and with this last election cycle and negative rhetoric riding high on both sides of the political spectrum, I was not optimistic about this. Friends who had become distant due to political differences and the personal divisiveness that has grown out of politics the past decade, reached out. Those differences no longer mattered. The gravity of this situation put them in perspective. The Now allowed an opportunity to do something constructive, with what seemed to purely unconstructive. Being able to do something with the helplessness and then channel the anger I was feeling into something purposeful was very healing. Building bridges to friends and family not only helped me feel that I was supported in my strife, but gave me a sense of purpose in a week that otherwise felt senseless and without purpose. I am determined to sustain close ties to all of my friends, even if expression of different world views starts to feeling alienating again. I had never lost ties, but something had felt unresolved. This mental process already started for me after the last election, but it hadn't acquired this same thrust behind it. 

A question I always ask myself when negative events happen is, what positive can I draw from this or how can I turn this into something constructive? Once that becomes more clear I take effective, purposeful action. A tragic event either separates you or brings you together. This opportunity allowed me to take something horrific and meant to hurt and divide people, and turn it into an event that cultivates love and connection and was a powerful experience for me.

What can you do right Now? That is all that needs to be answered. To run away from the moment only puts off the confrontation of that pain into the future. If the pain is too overwhelming that may be necessary, and it may require the help of a professional to prepare appropriately for that confrontation. That is ok, and it's up to your self-determination as to what path is best suited for whatever pain you're coping with.

B Strong or #BostonStrong doesn't mean strength in the sense of having to go fight back, that advice would be ill conceived. The first step is to do something that reminds you of who you are, and that usually means engaging in very familiar, even mundane activities. It may take time to build up the strength to do so, but whenever that strength arrives down the road, that is the prescription. Take action, do something, feel like you are an active agent in your recovery, or in the changes you want to make, or the decision not to make changes.

Something so senseless happens, do something in your life that makes sense, or creates a sense of purpose. Of course, over the course of the week I thought I would have to do something profound in reaction. I even thought of doing something as dramatic as starting to train and run in next years marathon. That would be fine. But in thinking about it, I have realized that for me B Strong means nothing more than the simplicity of showing up at the 118th Boston Marthon, and taking the same spot I do with my son every year to watch the race and the amazing athletes who train and prepare for this race all year, the same way we always do. B strong to me means doing the things I normally do, and keep moving in the direction of life as usual.


Photo © Dan Bolton 2013