It’s hard to think about tax policy or cost-of-living calculations for Social Security when death is in the news, when the grim horror of it hangs in the air like the last wisps of afternoon smoke. The bombs exploded just before the finish line, at mile 26.2 of the Boston Marathon, and everything else seemed to fade away.
“April is the cruelest month,” wrote T.S. Eliot, but of course that’s not true. Months are a human invention, an arbitrary division of time incapable of emotions or intentions.
The next line of Eliot’s poem says that April “breeds lilacs out of the dead ground,” but science tells us that’s not true either. Lilacs (Latin, syringa) are native to large parts of the planet from southeastern Europe to central Asia, and are commonly cultivated by people in many countries.
Human beings plant lilacs. And, as trite as it sounds, they do it a lot more often than they plant bombs.
Historians say that live television doesn’t bring us together the way it once did. There aren’t as many shared cultural moments now that we have pre-recorded entertainment, hundreds of cable channels, and the Internet. A half-century ago our nation shared cultural touchstones like seeing the Beatles or Elvis Presley on the Ed Sullivan show or the watching the conclusion of a long-running TV series like The Fugitive.
Now it seems as if our only common moments are tragic ones, acts of terror like 9/11 or celebrity deaths like Michael Jackson’s. Our only moments of national community seem to ring with pain and loss.
“The dead tree gives no shelter,” says T. S. Eliot’s poem, “… only shadow.”
“I will show you your shadow,” the poem says, “I will show you fear in a handful of dust.”
We do see our shadow at times like these. The fear is out there, and so is the hate. We’ve heard it speaking on the evening news, seen it written in the bloggers’ hand and articulated in the politicians’ voice.
But we’ve seen the best of us in that shadow, too. We saw it in the ordinary people who ran into the bomb smoke to help the wounded, not knowing if more bombs were about to explode. We saw it in the offers of help for the victims and the stranded, offers that flooded the Internet so quickly that Google made a spreadsheet out of them. The spreadsheet has its own rough poetry:
“I don’t live in the city, but can come get anyone who needs a place to stay.”
“We’ve got couches!”
“I just made soup!”
The phrasing may seem plain, but as far as I’m concerned it beats T. S. Eliot any day. Our best qualities often seem plain, or predictable or hackneyed. They’re so familiar, and so common, that they’ve become clichés.
We saw the best of us in the words of comedian Patton Oswalt, too. His Facebook entry quickly went viral with observations like these: “When you spot violence, or bigotry, or intolerance or fear or just garden-variety misogyny, hatred or ignorance, just look it in the eye and think, ‘The good outnumber you, and we always will.’”
We can choose our own shadow.
We can also choose to remember who we are when we go back to debating issues like tax policy and cost-of-living increases. We can remember that whenever we’ve had a national crisis, and understood that it was a crisis, we’ve responded as a community. We haven’t asked the people in need whether they’re Democrats or Republicans, conservative or liberal, Christian or Jewish or Muslim or atheist. We’ve just helped each other.
Even if it means running into the smoke, we’ve helped each other.
Yesterday the bombs exploded at Mile 26. That was the work of one person, or several people, or many people, who were in the grip of an evil darkness.
But the killing ended there. The people of Boston walked the next mile, the 27th Mile. And after the smoke cleared they chose to walk it together, not alone. They looked into that handful of dust and saw hope, not fear.
When we remember April 15, 2013, let’s remember the 27th mile.