Where Empathy Takes Us

I think I had an empathy attack last night. I went running and running around my neighborhood trying to escape the awfulness I was feeling and somehow instead ended up absorbing more as I passed people’s homes; hearing them talking, seeing their lowered flags, having the wind and rain whipping at my face as a Jeep of drunk teenagers flew by me screaming “Whooo BOSTON!” out the window. Oh god, people. Your pain is crushing me. I kept running, wondering where this empathy would take me.

Since I first learned of the explosions I started to cave in on myself, I have been absorbing all of this horror. I don’t feel like I’m reacting to it the same way as everyone else. People on Facebook and Instagram started posting things like “You fucked with the wrong city” scrawled over pictures of angry looking mascots. I could put myself in the place of a person who might feel that way, but I always dive deeper. I can’t help that. I flit over the feelings of rage or revenge or feeling prideful and linking arms with my community but where I really am in my psyche is a step off that cliff of regular human emotion and diving straight down into despair. I’m suspended for a time while I sort through the emotions taking me there, but I’m diving way down to the real gritty pain.

As the days wore on I felt this physical pain my body. I felt this hand around my throat, heaviness in my shoulders, pain when I breathed in, choking sobs building up in my chest. I wonder how it’s going to get out I think absently. I watch my daughter crying after her finger is stuck in a drawer; body wracking sobs that are rhythmic and involuntary. I feel a wistful sort of envy at how soothing that must feel. I don’t have the words to pull this feeling out of myself but I bet  if I tried it would sound something like that. A crying baby. Over and over again until I lull myself to sleep.

The involvement of the media has taken it to new heights of course. Anyone will tell you that. The media started criticizing the media before any of this was even partly over. And then the internet started attacking itself. All of them, to win the title of First to Spread Rumor. I guess I can take comfort in the fact that this isn’t as big as what happened on 9/11, that the media can’t turn this into Tragedy Porn for the next fifteen years. They sure as hell will try though. Events like this are something else entirely to the people that live them than they are to the media that report on them. I am sickened, fucking sickened, by the way we’re being cartoonized, and the way we’re doing it to ourselves. The Boston Bombers. The Boston Bombings. If you’re going to use a boat to escape, make sure it’s in water not in Watertown! All the jokes about how tough Boston is, how “we’ll find you, fucker”. The calls to pump their bodies full of bullets, to have a public hanging.

I thought I might feel relief once this nightmare week was over. I kept waiting for it, I kept waiting for that tightness in my chest to crackle a little bit when Husband called me and told me. I had turned off the news about five minutes prior to the end of the boat standoff. I had been up since 4:30 when my sister texted me “Turn on the news”. All day I was glued to the TV, the live blogging, the insanity of #bostonpolicescanner. Please god, let it be over soon. I thought of this kid, this 19 year old kid, and how he was dragging his injured body around the city, being hunted by every cop and law enforcement official and asshole with a Twitter account, and how he must be feeling. How did he get to that point, what must he be thinking lying there in that boat? Bleeding out, going over the events of that week, waiting to be found; knowing he was about to die. I could smell the tarp, I swear it. I could feel the cold floor of the boat as if it were against my face, and feel only the small warmth of my own breath against my face as my body became colder and colder.

Someone on my Facebook feed posted a photo of the body of Tamerlan Tsarnaev on a table in the morgue. His actual body.

I go to my usual time-wasting sites and instead see videos of the crying and shocked relatives of these kids who they keep calling “angels”. Nobody knows how this could have happened.

And now people are dancing in the streets and cheering. What victory have we won?

All week long I kept getting battered with people’s emotions. The grief and shock and sadness was like a cloud over the city, over the state. Every conversation was steeped in it. And then we saw the photos, we knew who they were. Or at least we knew something about them. They were just kids. They just looked like regular guys. It felt different than before, it gave us a confused pause. These didn’t look like the scary faceless terrorists that we were talking about when we told our friends the “terrorists aren’t going to win”. These looked like…people.

And then Friday. Oh, Friday. We learned their names, we learned their histories. We’re still learning.

Oh, Russians?

Oh…no, not Russians. Chechens.

But they’re from here? They’re American?



It never felt like an international attack to me, I think I already said that. It felt familiar and personal. They’re from here. And they stuck around? And then went fucking nuts and started killing cops in cold blood, hijacking cars and enacting dramatic shoot outs? What on earth is happening? None of this makes any sense. The more I think about it, the more pain I’m in. I feel no relief, only sadness and confusion. Poor everyone. The victims, their families, the people watching, the first responders, the people at home watching. The families of these two young men, learning their loved ones could do something so awful. Their mama, and their dad across the globe watching from afar. Their uncle who was ambushed at his car, trying to hold back tears. Their other uncle, vehemently denouncing their actions and having to answer questions like “How do you feel about America?” Get fucked, you asshole reporter.

That woman in Malden who was punched by a stranger, in front of her children, for being Muslim.

Poor everyone.

Once again I am overwhelmed with empathy, and it hurts even more that I am unwelcome to express my empathy for the bombers and what could have blackened their hearts to cause them to do something like this. I think about all of the young immigrant men in this community, this country. How hard it is to be a teenager, how hard it is to have your family busted apart, how easy it is to find camaraderie in maybe an online Muslim community, how easy it is to become impassioned about a cause, how easy it is to take all your anger and hate and confusion and blame the rest of the world and feel like you’re fighting some sort of righteous cause. How easy it is to follow around your big brother because you’re just a dumb kid who doesn’t know any better, and you think you’re doing the right thing.

I can have empathy for these young men and try to understand them while also feeling fully that justice needs to be served. The feelings are separate for me, just as my earlier feelings of grief and sadness were separate from my feelings and pride and love, oh so much love, for the people of Boston and their incredible bravery and kindness toward one another. Every interview I hear and every donation website I see spring up cracks me open anew with love for my people. We are good, good people.

Do you hear that? We are good people. That means we don’t discount the humanity in others, even when they’ve done us a terrible wrong. They were once a part of our society and we owe it to that society to mend the wound and make this place safe, to keep it safe. It must be a safe place for everyone, and we can’t write off entire groups of people or lash out with our hate in violence. We can’t dance on graves and gleefully post pictures of bodies torn by bullets, or bloodied children in the backs of ambulances. He’s 19 but goddammit, that’s a child.

We are all just people. It’s the very same kernel of hate that makes you stop seeing that which makes you turn down the dark path Tamerlan and Dzokhar went down. We can’t lose our humanity. That is how the terrorists win.

4 thoughts on “Where Empathy Takes Us

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