Today is Marathon Monday. It is also the second anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombing. I am in Boston right now, perhaps running in the rain in the marathon as you read this blog. Runners and their families cannot fail to notice that security has increased exponentially since that fateful day two years ago when two pressure cooker bombs were set off near the finish line at 2:49 p.m. A massive manhunt for suspects and brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev ended when Tamerlan was killed and Dzhokhar was captured while hiding in a boat.
The worst terrorist attack on American soil since September 11, 2001 resulted in four deaths (including a police officer) and dozens of serious injuries.
In the face of this enormous tragedy, marring one of our nation’s most iconic sports events, the city of Boston quickly rallied as the phrase Boston Strong spread throughout the city.
Two Emerson College students started the campaign just hours after the bombing by creating blue and yellow (Boston Marathon colors) T-shirts. Boston Strong symbolizes defiance, determination, hope and, above all, resilience.
A few weeks ago I participated in a webinar sponsored by the Massachusetts Resiliency Center, which was formed to assist victims, their families and anyone suffering trauma as a result of the Boston Marathon bombings. Opening in the summer of 2014, the Center offers counseling, behavioral health supports, traumatic brain injury services and deaf and hard of hearing services. The Center also places a high priority on connecting survivors with others.
A common definition of resilience is “toughness” and “determination.” We keep on going, no matter what. We never quit and have the capacity to bounce back after disappointment, failure or tragedy. For Christians, resilience has the added dimension of hope. Resilience is embodied hope, the understanding that profound difficulty is a normal part of life. At the same time God gives us the tools to not only survive but thrive. We emerge stronger than before because our lives are rooted in God’s love and faithfulness.
Open to all 2015 Boston Marathon runners, the webinar focused on resiliency in two areas: the aftermath of disaster or tragedy and in the 26-mile marathon itself. The psychological effects of trauma include:
- Cognitive: confusion, memory loss, preoccupation
- Emotional: shock, depression, fear, feeling overwhelmed, feeling nothing, anxiety
- Physical: nausea, high heart rate, fatigue, hyper-arousal
- Behavioral: suspicion, irritability, argumentative, excessive drinking, eating disorder, sexual dysfunction, indecisiveness
The presenters reminded us that the phases of recovery are different for each person. Recovery can last from one to three days or one to three years or even longer. Renewed grief, anger and disillusionment can be triggered by anniversaries or anything that reminds us of the tragedy. While some people experience a long-term psychological impact, it is not a given that trauma will be devastating.
They also referred to what is known as survivor’s guilt. Those who survive a trauma often want to assume responsibility for what happened and wonder what they could have done to prevent the tragedy. Survivor’s guilt is a normal reaction to an abnormal event. Runners in 2013 felt guilt, spectators felt guilt and even families who left the city for spring break felt guilt for abandoning the city. Yet the truth is that everyone is part of Boston Strong.
Most victims of tragedy or disaster are “normal” people dealing with abnormal circumstances. With help from family, friends and counseling, they will eventually be able to move on with their lives. Most of us heal on our own because resilience is part of the human condition and is a gift from God. In fact, post-traumatic growth happens for many. It may be a new sense of compassion, a greater capacity for finding meaning in suffering, a realigning of goals and values or new coping strategies that they did not have before.
The presenters then moved into a discussion of resilience in the Boston Marathon itself. Most of us are aware of the mind-body connection, but it is especially critical in endurance races. When your body doesn’t want to move anymore, when you are so beat that you just want to curl up in a ball on the pavement at the 20-mile mark, it’s your mind that enables you to put one foot in front of another and keep on going.
Jeff Brown, a psychologist for the marathon medical team, stressed that the most important three pounds of our body are our brain. Resilience is the ability of our mind to encourage our body to withstand and adapt to stress and stressful situations. Resilience is part of who we are as human beings, but the cultivation of resilience is something we can develop in ourselves through learning, practice and coaching. Some of us are more physically resilient than socially or psychologically resilient, but it is clear that people with great social support and positive attitudes tend to cope better than others.
Mental strategies such as routine and visualization can also foster resilience. Many athletes and performers have pre-performance strategies that calm their anxiety. For runners it could be how you lace your shoes, using the same pins for your bib number, wearing your lucky socks, or consuming pre-race pasta. For performers it could be eating the same thing an hour before the show, doing the same vocal exercises or dressing in a certain way.
Visualization exercises where we imagine ourselves performing at peak capacity or rehearsing what we will do if something goes awry are also helpful in dispelling jitters and fostering resilience. The most important thing a Boston athlete can do when approaching the half-mile Heartbreak Hill is visualize themselves running steadily and strong rather than hitting the wall.
On April 8 a Boston jury found Dzhokhar Tsarnaev guilty on all thirty counts, and the second phase of the trial is about to begin. Will the same jury sentence Mr. Tsarnaev to life in prison or death? Last Friday (April 17), Bill and Denise Richards published an open letter in The Boston Globe. Their 8-year-old son, Martin, who was cheering on the runners with his family, was killed. But each family member was also injured. Jane (7), lost her left leg; Henry (9), witnessed unspeakable tragedy; their mother Denise lost sight in her right eye; and their father Bill had shrapnel burn his legs and his eardrums were perforated. Here is part of their letter.
“The past two years have been the most trying of our lives. Our family has grieved, buried our young son, battled injuries, and endured numerous surgeries – all while trying to rebuild lives that will never be the same. We sat in the courtroom, day after day, bearing witness to overwhelming evidence that included graphic video and photographs, replicated bombs, and even the clothes our son wore his last day alive…
“But now that the tireless and committed prosecution team has ensured that justice will be served, we urge the Department of Justice to bring the case to a close. We are in favor of and would support the Department of Justice in taking the death penalty off the table in exchange for the defendant spending the rest of his life in prison without any possibility of release and waiving all of his rights to appeal.
“We know that the government has its reasons for seeking the death penalty, but the continued pursuit of that punishment could bring years of appeals and prolong reliving the most painful day of our lives. We hope our two remaining children do not have to grow up with the lingering, painful reminder of what the defendant took from them, which years of appeals would undoubtedly bring.
“For us, the story of Marathon Monday 2013 should not be defined by the actions or beliefs of the defendant, but by the resiliency of the human spirit and the rallying cries of this great city. We can never replace what was taken from us, but we can continue to get up every morning and fight another day.”
Boston Strong Resilience: We are hope for each other.