Thursday, April 18, 2013

Fighting disheartenment

Getting out for runs this week. 
So, I started this post a few days ago and decided not to publish it, feeling that people have already read enough about the Boston attacks from the running community. But I have to admit that this did affect my mood this week, and it's been helpful to hash out the emotions. 

I was one of those sentient children who occasionally became deeply affected by world events. Some of my oldest memories are framed by news images I saw on a television screen. I was 6 years old when the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster happened. My first grade teacher screened the live coverage in the background of whatever else we were doing that day. I remember distraction among my classmates, but my teacher was watching the news intently, and I also couldn't take my eyes off the screen. She remarked that it was a "sad day for America," but I remember my predominant emotion was fear.

Looking back, this visceral fear had less to do with scary images of burning debris falling from the sky, and more to do with the budding understanding that the potential for bad things surrounded me and everyone else, everywhere. No one had total control of a situation. From an early age I believed that safety was fleeting, and so I never felt safe. This fostered a growing entrapment in my own subtle fears, until one day I woke up in a cold sweat at age 22 and decided I needed to get a handle on this creeping anxiety — not by avoiding fear, but by confronting it.

So this week. Everyone has their own reactions to the predominant events of this week. Like many of my peers, I spent Monday morning tracking a few friends and family members in the Boston Marathon. I was particularly excited about my Aunt Marcia, who was a role model for me when I was growing up. She was my "Ironman aunt" that I'd brag about to friends long before I even remotely considered myself an athlete, and she was good at touting empowering sentiments to my cousins and me. For several years, she battled through a dark period of her life from which she recently emerged, and found comfort and renewed strength when she took up running again.

Last September, after reading one of my books for the first time, she sent me a thoughtful e-mail that I cherish: "There have been many, many days where I have been so empty and I have — not just thought but KNOWN — that there was no way I could go on. Yet, somehow, someway, I pull something from that innermost part of me and I just keep going. I don't know where that comes from and you did a beautiful job of describing it. When people tell me I'm crazy or how determined I am or what a bad-ass I am, I just smile and say "I can't help it, it's in my genes." Well, damn girl, I was and continue to be right. I am proud to swim in that gene pool with you and proud to call you family."

When she qualified for and went to Boston, I was excited for her. I checked her progress on the Web only minutes before I learned of the explosions. I knew she hadn't finished yet. I knew she was probably close or right there when the blasts happened. And I let that childlike sense of helpless fear creep back in. What if?

My aunt is among the lucky ones. She finished faster than she has ever finished a marathon, about ten minutes before the first bomb went off. She and a friend made their way beyond the impact zone — but still close enough to witness much of the chaos. Her friend who was waiting for her at finish line remarked, "Her training and speed may have saved us all. We started making our way to the recovery area after she passed by, and we got four blocks away from the blast zone."

Ten more minutes ... Monday's marathon is filled with hundreds of similar stories. With such a reduced degree of separation, it's difficult not to feel personally impacted by these bombings, even though I was not there and no one I know was physically harmed. At the same time, it's a reminder that catastrophes and senseless violence happen with astonishing regularity around the world. I've grown into one of those news junkie adults, so I encounter disturbing stories and images nearly every day. And I do ask myself why I should feel so much more shaken by the marathon attacks than I do about bombings in Iraq, or violence in Africa, or even the fertilizer plant explosion in Texas. They all strike at the heart of my childhood fear — that things can go bad for everyone, everywhere. Just as there's no way for us to completely shield ourselves from evil and disasters, there's no way to completely shield ourselves from this fear.

So I've been feeling a bit down ever since. Another act of terrorism — another act of senseless violence, and more calls to limit freedoms in the name of "security," which would be an illusion at best and oppressive at worst. There have been suggestions that cities should reduce or cancel big marathon events, or that runners should avoid congregating in large groups — even though it's highly unlikely that the attacks had anything to do with "running." Meanwhile, we're doing little more than fleeing from shadows.

But then I consider how I'd feel if my aunt wasn't one of those who returned safely. There are never definitive answers, which is why it's easy to feel so helpless or scared. But I'm reminded why it's important to refuse to give in to fear, no matter how big or small, in all aspects of life. And even though I know the attacks were directed at a high-profile event rather than runners specifically, I'm heartened by the meme my aunt posted shortly after she returned: "If you're trying to defeat the human spirit, marathoners are the wrong group to target."