Monday April 22, 2013

We are a nation that lives with terror every day.

Since 9/11, if not before, terror is part of our lives. It is in the back of our minds when we drop a child off at school, board an airplane, enter a tall building, or cross a border. It is present.

When bombs exploded during the Boston Marathon on April 15, killing three people and badly wounding more than 170 others, Americans were shocked, dismayed, horrified and scared. But soon we recognized what had happened. The ever-present fear came to the forefront. We reacted.

Just two days later, on Wednesday, April 17, a fertilizer plant caught fire and blew up in a small town in Texas, killing an as yet undetermined number of residents in the town of West, Texas -- population of just 2,500. The massive fiery explosion registered as an earthquake of 2.1 magnitude. Soon amateur videos of the explosion were posted to social media, including one that included a child’s voice, off camera, screaming at her dad to please get them out of here. It was chilling.

Two more days passed, and Boston was on lockdown as authorities hunted for a second suspect in the Marathon bombings, 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. A first suspect, the man’s brother, Tamerlan Tsarnev, 26, had died the night before after an exchange of bullets with police. Citizens of Boston "sheltered in place" as law enforcement officers searched for the man. We sat riveted to our televisions. We cheered when the younger suspect was captured alive.

And now we are mentally exhausted from the week’s high-pitched intensity.

According to the American Psychological Association, "Trying to cope with the irrational information that is beyond normal comprehension can set off a chain of psychological events culminating in feelings of fear, helplessness, vulnerability and grief."

How do we process this kind of information, when national tragedies occur on the heels of one another, when people we know or have six degrees of separation from are killed or have their lives forever changed in split second?

President Barack Obama seemed to field that question as he spoke at an interfaith service in Boston Thursday honoring those killed and injured Monday afternoon near the marathon’s finish line.

"We may be momentarily knocked off our feet,"Obama said. "But we’ll pick ourselves up. We’ll keep going. We will finish the race."

Just keep going. Sounds so simple.

At the same service, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick said: "We will grieve our losses and heal. We will rise, and we will endure. We will have accountability without vengeance, vigilance without fear."

The president later added that "the American people refuse to be terrorized." He quoted the Bible, "Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us," Hebrews 12:1.

At times like these, however, it can be difficult to put one foot in front of the other when the hits keep coming.

Contacted last week by email, April Stein, director of the Psychological Services Office at Bennington College, offered some perspective to that end.

"Of course, how we respond to painful news is in large part based in our own history. Helping people talk about their experience and join together for support is very important," Stein said,

She continued, "As Erich Fromm talks about, helping people find meaning (joining together as a community, a sense of purpose, volunteerism etc.) can also be helpful. Towards this end, helping people take agency and think of how they can help others can be very important to ward off a sense of hopelessness."

Fromm, a noted German social psychologist and psychoanalyst who lived from 1900 to 1980, according to Wikipedia, is famous for saying, "The task we must set for ourselves is not to feel secure, but to be able to tolerate insecurity."

We seem to tolerate insecurity better now than ever.

~Michelle Karas