When something like the bombings at the Boston Marathon happens, there are no words to describe the horror, both physical and emotional, that the bystanders endure. We call it a catastrophe, an act of terror and a tragedy — all of which are true, but none of which help us understand the meaning of what has happened. Ultimately, words fail us when we try to make sense out of something so senseless.
Yesterday morning, before we knew how the day would unfold, I heard on the radio that April 15th is a bad day in history (taxes aside). It’s the day Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, the day the Titanic sank in 1912, and now, the day of the tragedy in Boston.
Technically, there is a word for this. The word ‘dismal‘ comes from the Anglo-Norman French dis mal and the medieval Latin dies mali (or ‘evil days’) that denoted the two days in each month that were believed to be unlucky. We can certainly call 4/15/13 dismal.
But that being said, it’s also important to separate today’s acts of terror from other tragic events in history that happened to fall on April 15th. Saying that a day is inherently unlucky diminishes the presence of agency — that is, the fact that someone (or several people) consciously chose to commit a heinous act against humanity. That it falls on the same day as other infamous events is an unhappy coincidence — but does it mean something?
It’s only natural that we try to find meaning in tragedies. And indeed, we can find meaning in another act of agency — that is, the heroism that restores our faith in humanity that hangs by a thread after something horrific happens. In the midst of bloodshed, there were acts of awesomeness: The runners who kept on running to local hospitals to donate blood after finishing the marathon; the first responders who went back into the carnage to help victims; and the strangers who offered up homes and meals to help the stranded.
There’s a word (or words) for this too — it’s the human spirit. As The New Yorker noted, the choice to bomb a marathon was an attempt to shatter this. But it turns out, this isn’t such an easy thing to break. The important thing to remember as we move forward is that the vast majority of us are on the same team — we can’t fight amongst ourselves or let fear mongering get the best of us.
As long as we remember that even in the face of a dismal tragedy, we still have the agency to help one another and be heroes, then we don’t resign ourselves to history. We triumph by demanding and believing that humanity deserves so much better.