“Have you spoken to your father?” my husband asked me when I walked through the door after jogging.
“No,” I answered, surprised, and then concerned. “Why?”
“Two bombs have gone off at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Two dead, many injured. You might want to call him.”
Two bombs. This was, sadly, not unfamiliar territory. I now had a mental handbook titled “How To Deal With Bombings In Cities I Know and Love,” and I began to follow the unwritten instructions therein: first, do everything possible to find out if family and friends are safe, second, obsessively watch the news in a dazed and shocked state, finally (after several hours have passed), cry.
I was lucky again this time. My father had been on Martha’s Vineyard, miles away from Boston, when the bombs exploded. I was able to confirm, within an hour, that none of my other family members, and no friends– including the friend from my local running club who had flown to Boston to run the race– had been killed or injured. After completing step one, I moved on to step two of my manual and began scouring the internet for news.
While I clicked between news sources in the U.S., England, and Sweden, what had happened began to sink in. Boston is not just a dot on a map for me. My dad moved to Boston when I was nine years old, and I visited him there every month or two until I graduated from high school. Years later, I attended graduate school in Boston, living with my husband, Markus, on Commonwealth Avenue, at mile twenty-two of the marathon route itself, just at the top of Heartbreak Hill. The first year we lived on Comm. Ave., as the street is known in Boston, the weather on Patriot’s Day (the holiday commemorating the anniversary of the first battles of the American Revolution, observed in Massachusetts on the third Monday of April, and known locally as Marathon Monday) was sunny, and warm enough for marathon spectators to be outside without coats. At that point I was not a frequent jogger, and I was convinced that anybody who chose to run 26.2 miles must be clinically insane. Markus had suggested that we watch the event from outside our building, and as we readied ourselves to go out, I expected fun, but I did not anticipate life-changing.
I saw the neon-bright tops of marathoners running past through the glass of the heavy front door of our block of flats, and as soon as the door opened, I heard the rhythmic slapping of shoes on the street, and the cheers, shouts of encouragement, and applause of the spectators lining the street. By the time the door closed behind me, I discovered that my eyes had filled with tears: the tears that come when a friend who has struggled for years to become pregnant gives birth to a healthy baby, the tears that well up when a beautiful piece of music is played with skill and emotion, the tears, I discovered that Patriot’s Day, that honour the strength and commitment of athletes who have endured untold hours of training to achieve their goal.
What surprised me the most about the Marathon was that some of the runners looked a lot like me. I had expected all of them to be super-fit, with nary a love handle to be seen, but many of them did not fit my template; some, having already run over twenty miles and at last reached the crest of the infamous Heartbreak Hill, were visibly hurting. Several runners had their names printed on their tops, and the crowd urged them on by name, saving especially loud shouts for those who looked stricken or had lapsed into a walk.
“Come on, Angie, you can do it!”
“That’s the spirit, Kevin!”
“Go, Tina, go! It’s downhill now!”
“Tina! Tina! Tina!”
The marathoners called out by name invariably responded, with a wave, or a smile, or best of all, by breaking back into a run. Wheelchair runners passed us as well, arms sinewy, eyes glued to the road ahead of them.
“Look at that father and son wheelchair team,” Markus urged me, pointing up the road. “Do you see them?”
“Yes. Wow, that must be extremely hard work,” I said, awed that someone would choose not only to run, but also to push a wheelchair well over twenty miles.
“That’s the Hoyts,” Markus explained. “They’ve been running for years. The son has CP; he can’t use his arms, so his dad pushes him. That’s devotion.”
Judging from the decibel level of the crowd, the Hoyts were well-loved by the Marathon audience. I watched, mesmerized, as the Hoyts flew by. Maybe marathon runners weren’t all crazy after all. Maybe they were just extraordinary.
During the years we lived in Boston, Markus and I felt no compulsion to watch the race from anywhere other than mile 22. But while we never stood close to the finish line on Marathon Monday, we had walked past the finish line on Boylston Street countless times, and we visited Newbury Street, the street that runs parallel to the last few blocks of the Marathon route, at least once every couple of weeks to browse, and sometimes to shop, at Tower Records.
Bombs on Boylston Street, at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, on April 15th, the eve of my dad’s birthday. I sat transfixed in front of my laptop, clicking between news sites and Twitter, wanting insatiably to know what everyone wanted to know—who was responsible for this monstrous act, what possible reason could the perpetrators have had, and why—why– had they seen fit to kill and maim so many innocent people?
A few hours after the first reports of the bombings had reached the major news outlets, voices on social media began to ask questions along the lines of, “What about Syria?” Far more than three civilians had died there in the past week; why hadn’t those innocent victims received the same amount of media coverage? Guilt struck. How could I be so callous that I cared more about three people dying in Boston than about more than ten times that number losing their lives in Syria? But I knew, even then, that I would shed tears for the victims of the Boston bombings, but not for those who had died in Syria. Why? What sort of failure of empathy did the disparity in my feelings indicate?
Last summer we visited family and friends in Vermont. We stayed in a cabin in the woods just off of a dirt road, the sort of Vermont road that has a name, but also has a route number. One morning, while my brother looked after our kids, my husband and I ran for miles along the brown surface of that road, through the dappled sunlight, avoiding the steeply cambered edge to keep from twisting our ankles. We passed houses every so often, but mostly, the road was lined by tall, silent, healthy trees. For part of the run, the quiet was interrupted by the burble of a fast brook, a brook that years earlier had burst its banks and nearly prevented us from flying home to London on time.
A few weeks ago, my mom let me know that a woman who lived close to where we had stayed had gone missing from that very road. A search effort was underway, but the woman had not been found, although a full day had passed. I didn’t know the woman, but I knew the woods, and if my own daughter ever went missing in the early autumn in the same general area, I could not even imagine how crazed by fear and desperation I would become.
The night after my mom told me the news, I woke myself up a little after three in the morning from a horrible nightmare—the woman lost in the woods was no longer anonymous, she was my sister, and I was running through the dense underbrush, nearly tripping over small stones and almost crashing into boulders, screaming my sister’s name over and over. It was the kind of nightmare where, upon waking, I wasn’t even cross that it was three A.M.; I was just relieved to be safely awake in my bed.
According to the internet, 2300 people go missing in the U.S. every day (http://www.ehow.com/about_5402115_missing-people.html). But during the hours that the whereabouts of the woman from my hometown were unknown, I didn’t spend much time thinking about those other individuals. I did consider missing people in a general way, when I thought about what could possibly have happened to the woman, but I felt real concern only for the woman in the woods. She mattered to me because I could see her in my mind’s eye, and for me, I must see before I can feel.
Further proof that familiarity breeds care, rather than contempt, came after a concert given by my daughter and the other children in her year group at school. Several parents made their way from the concert to the local cafe; as the coffee morning progressed, one of the mums seated at the table began to tell the story of her father’s recent death. I have known this mum for years now– I’ve watched as her daughter has grown from an adorable four-year old into a radiant and talented eight-year old. As this mum described her father’s last several days, amazingly with only a hint of tears, I found myself struggling not to sob. I had seen pictures of this mum’s father, and I could vividly imagine him there in his bed, waiting for the end, with my friend sitting resolutely alongside, holding his hand.
On the day of my friend’s father’s passing, countless other fathers also died. I did not mourn for them. My mom, bless her, has reached the age at which phone conversations with her often include references to people from my hometown who are gravely ill or who have moved on to greener pastures. If the person who has died is someone my mom has known well, someone she has mentioned more than a couple times over the years, my hearts drops, time is suspended, and I share her pain for a moment. But unless I also knew the person in question, the moment is fleeting. If death has come for someone in town I never knew, someone my mother never talked about, then I invariably say, “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that,” and I am, but I do not hold the person in my mind; I don’t experience the genuine sympathy I felt for my friend that morning in the cafe.
While I lived in Boston, I learned to understand the Boston dialect. I came to appreciate the differences in character between Brighton, Cambridge, Jamaica Plain, and the North End, and I learned how to hold my own while driving through Kenmore Square or along Storrow Drive (before the Big Dig made that particular road a bit less challenging). I came to love parts of the city: the community sailing centre on the Charles River, the brownstones of Beacon Hill, the bagel shops of Brookline. When the Marathon bombers committed their horrible crime, killing three and injuring so many, they sliced a gaping wound in a city that feels like a living, breathing friend to me. Just as I reacted more strongly to the disappearance of the woman from my hometown and the death of my friend’s father, so the news from Boston hit me far harder than the news from Syria, because I know Boston intimately, while I know Syria not at all. The closest I have been to Syria is France, I have never met anyone from Syria, and on April 15, 2013, if given a blank political map, not only could I not have correctly labelled Syria, I wouldn’t have even known quite where to start looking for it.
The explanation for the canyon-sized gap between my compassion for people and places I feel a connection to versus people and places that feel distant does not justify the discrepancy. Viewed rationally, a human life is a human life, and the violent death of an eight-year old from Dorchester should affect me as much as the violent death of an eight-year old from Homs. What would it take to increase my empathy for people I don’t know, who live in places I know nothing about, whose lives bear so little resemblance to my own?
Years ago, when I was still in my twenties, I told a good friend, a woman much older than myself, that I dreamed of someday sailing around the world under wind power.
“Look out for the pirates,” my friend said sombrely.
I laughed. “Oh, Shelly, I can’t believe you could say that with a straight face. Do you honestly think Captain Hook is going to leap out when I get to the mid-Atlantic?”
“You haven’t done your research, have you? There really are pirates—and they could definitely mess up your plans. Lots of them are Somalis.”
I paused for a moment, waiting to see if Shelly would break into her slow grin and tell me she had been pulling my leg. She didn’t.
“You’re serious, aren’t you? Are there really still pirates? How bizarre.”
“I’m dead serious. And I want you to promise me you’ll take sensible anti-piracy precautions when you finally make that trip.” Not only was Shelly better informed than me, she also knew, from having lived twice as long as I had, that the time may come when we would go our separate ways, and she was proactively concerned.
Years later, when Shelly was thousands of miles away, I heard on the news that some Somali pirates had hijacked a ship and taken several hostages. “Oh my goodness,” I thought to myself, “Shelly was right.” From that moment, Somalia, which I had previously classified as “a country with starving children” became “a country with starving children and dangerous pirates.” My associations with Somalia went from depressing to threatening.
Then I hired Amani. Markus was working long hours and I was home with our two children, who were then six and three. By Friday each week I was shattered, so to maintain my sanity, I had searched for a mother’s help for Friday afternoons. Amani was good with the children and had a calm, down-to-earth manner; she was originally from Somalia, but had moved to Sweden as a girl and spoke fluent Swedish as well as impeccable English. The more I learned about Amani, the more Somalia morphed again, going from two-dimensional—a flat expanse of starvation and piracy headlines—to three-dimensional, a land I could grasp, through the stories of someone I cared about.
I have been fortunate to have the opportunity to not only meet, but also befriend, individuals from many corners of the globe, but there are still large swaths of the world map that remain unknown quantities for me. To fill the gaps, I have turned to that age-old method: education. A few weeks ago, I confessed to Markus that I really had no idea why so many people were dying in Syria. I didn’t have the foggiest notion of which parties were at war or why they were fighting, let alone any insights into the historical background for the conflict. The next day, Markus considerately sent me a link to an article from the Washington Post online, titled “9 Questions About Syria You Were Too Embarrassed To Ask” (Max Fisher, 29 August 2013). I pored over that excellent synopsis, and for the next several days, I spent every lunch hour reading more articles from reputable sources about Syria. While my casual research provided me with answers to the factual questions of the war, it was a photo essay of a Syrian refugee camp that first made the sufferings of the Syrian people real to me. Education dramatically reduced the empathy gap between Syria and Boston in my heart.
While self-education about unfamiliar countries is beneficial, one drawback to attempting to share insights with others is the risk of seeming holier-than-thou. I have been reading Nick Kristof’s opinion articles in The New York Times for many years now, and I confess that a touch of disdain has occasionally tempered my appreciation of his writing. For anyone unfamiliar with his work, Mr Kristof is firmly committed to using his influential platform to bring to light injustice and suffering around the world. I deeply admire Mr Kristof’s bravery and dedication; there is no way I would travel anywhere close to Syria right now, in September, 2013; but that is precisely where Mr Kristof is, interviewing Syrian refugees and sharing their plight with his readership. I find Mr Kristof dedicated, and his work important, yet every so often, when I see the subject of Mr Kristof’s most recent column— be it poverty, sex trafficking, health care, or the like- I feel the urge to comment, “Really, Nick, must you always try so hard? Do you ever just want to write about cute puppies?”
It takes one to know one. “I read an article” has been one of my catchphrases for so long that when it first entered my vocabulary it meant that I had held an actual newspaper or magazine in my hands. Now the articles are usually online, and I use social media to share the ones I find most interesting with all and sundry. I harbour no illusions that even my closest friends always read the links I post to New York Times columns about schizophrenia or the homeless workforce, and I am absolutely sure that some people have the same feelings about me that I occasionally have about Mr Kristof and other incorrigible disseminators of information.
Why would I sometimes have an adverse reaction to Mr Kristof’s choice of topics, and why wouldn’t everybody welcome the chance to read up, via my Facebook link, on the United Nations Secretary-General’s latest official statement about Syria?
I know that part of my reluctance to learn more about the miseries of the world is the guilt that comes with knowledge. Even if I wanted to hear what Mr Kristof has to say about Syria, the next question is, what can I actually do about it? What is the point of grasping how enormously nightmarish the daily life of a Syrian refugee who has lost beloved family members is if my hands are tied?
Yet while learning is not always fun, it still beats the alternative. Everything I’ve ever heard or read about global warming has been depressing—there is nothing uplifting about melting ice caps or holes in the ozone layer. But every time I get caught at the level crossing waiting for one, two, or worse yet, three trains to go by, I kill the car engine specifically for the little penguins that start swimming forlornly across my internal horizon, seeking in vain after glaciers to call home. Sometimes I even feel a pang of guilt about finding myself in a car in the first place. If everyone stuck at the level crossing honoured the penguins, it would make a measurable difference in the total emissions; small changes added together over time become significant.
It is easier to educate children. When I was in high school, an English teacher of mine invited a concentration camp survivor to come and speak to my class. The woman, who was slight and somewhat stooped, showed us the long black number tattooed on her arm, and described– as best she could to a class of sixteen-year olds– her experience as a Jewish prisoner at Dachau. I can still picture her today, although I have long since forgotten her name; a woman older than my grandmother, sitting gracefully at the front of the classroom, speaking quietly of atrocities I found nearly unbelievable in her accurate, heavily-accented English. My teacher, by bringing this remarkable woman in to share her story with us, made an awful part of modern history personal for each one of us. The Jewish people that suffered so horrifically under the Nazis were no longer just distant strangers in books we were assigned to read, they were living, breathing people, just like our guest lecturer.
I forgive myself for crying about the deaths and injuries at the Boston Marathon but shedding no tears about the deaths in war-torn parts of the world on the same day. The imbalance does not mean that I don’t care about the victims of violence elsewhere in the world, or that I think those killed in Boston were somehow worth more; it just means I have work to do to continue to lessen the lopsidedness. Towards that end, I will keep reading about Syria, and about other places that are suffering from similar horrors. The plight of the Syrian people is already far more real to me than it was before I began my self-education effort, and I know that the more I learn, the more my empathy will increase, until finally, I will cry for the victims of violence in Syria as well, and I will be that much closer to living the truth of John Donne’s words:
“No man is an island,
Entire of itself…
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.”
Excerpt from Meditation XVII, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions (1623).