June 1st, 2013

Not quite all Bostonians now

I learned about the marathon bombings somewhere on the New Jersey Turnpike when our daughter, who lives and works in Boston, called to say that she was safe. It was an odd way to check in but we assured her that we were safe as well and asked what else was new. Then out came the story that would have us transfixed for the rest of the week as it held the attention of the entire Boston area, the nation and the world. Whether you were standing along the marathon route as we usually did or traveling, there was nowhere to hide from the impact of terror at an international event.

On the third Monday in April it seems like everyone knows someone who comes to Boston.

In the days that followed, expressions of solidarity with the bombing victims poured in from all quarters. The Boston Globe ran an article entitled “All Bostonians Now” and even our arch rivals on the baseball diamond, the New York Yankees, sang the Red Sox anthem, “Sweet Caroline,” in the House that Ruth Built. Not everyone, however, was so quick to identify with the hometown crowd as we were soon to learn.

After gathering the scant details then available from our daughter, we turned on the car radio for more information and then pulled into the next rest stop. Groups of people stood together around television screens suspended from the ceiling, all tuned to the news and all the news the same. As the runners approached the finish line, the noise of the first explosion, followed shortly the second, drowned out the cheering crowd. The barricades along the route toppled like a line of cards, smoke billowed into a clear spring sky and an older runner caught by the blast fell over on his side. We would see this footage over and over again in the days and weeks to come and other images too. Now there was only this, this and the drone of reporters and commentators as shocked and puzzled as the rest of us.

Seeing your home attacked when you are on the road brings a special kind of horror and we could not help but give it voice. That’s where we live, we said to no one in particular and to anyone in that small band of television gawkers that might care to listen. Not me, replied a man standing next to us. I live in and here he named a suburb only a little farther away from ground zero than our own bedroom community.

Well no, we said, we don’t live in the city of Boston either but this is still our home. Our neighbor took that as his cue to scold us, to tell us that our home is not in danger and that he lives in his suburb in order to avoid precisely the kind of dangers that cities breed.

As the days stretched into weeks and citizens of the world tripped over themselves to identify with Boston, I could not stop thinking about this man’s determination to run the other way. It would have been easy to dismiss him as an arrogant snob but that’s not what psychologists do. We are always trying to figure out what makes people tick, what motivates people to behave in certain ways, and how there can be so many different reactions to the same event.

This one was easy and there was no shortage of precedents to account for the man’s behavior. The first one to come to mind was the idea of the “right stuff” that Tom Wolfe so memorably described in his story of America’s first seven astronauts. All of these men were former jet pilots who courted danger on a daily basis and regularly lost members of their bold fraternity. To protect themselves from experiencing the full extent of their vulnerability, the pilots explained fatalities as a matter of not having the right stuff.

As long as a man believed that he had the right stuff that his unlucky comrade lacked, he could maintain the illusion that nothing bad could happen to him. Perhaps my neighbor from his protected suburb thought of his right stuff as superior judgment that would keep him away from places where bombs were likely to explode. He might have been a modern day Prospero from Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death,” the prince who retreats with his friends to an impregnable abbey to hide from the plague that eventually crashes the party.

Stories like this exist because we all struggle with the vulnerability that makes us human. Sometimes we distance ourselves from the people, places and labels that define our membership in groups of the especially disadvantaged or challenged. The hospital where I work is filled with people who have a slight case of schizophrenia, a light depression or no mental illness at all. They are no more deserving of blame than the man at the rest stop vehemently insisting he is not a Bostonian. We can’t get well until we accept that we are sick. We can’t be strong, even Boston strong, until we know that we are weak.

Alan Bodnar, Ph.D. is a psychologist at Worcester State Hospital and a consultant in the field of leadership development.

By Alan Bodnar Ph.D.

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