Ego trips amid tragedy
May 3, 2013
I sat at a local bar the other day and listened to people talking. There was laughter, clinking of glasses and happy chatter. There was also an awful lot of "it's all about me."
I was tired, still a bit run down from being sick and having some minor surgery done, so I was more subdued and quiet than usual. Shocking and difficult to imagine, I know. And perhaps that is why it rubbed me the wrong way: No. It is not all about you. It is never all about you.
Or perhaps it was the rawness still of the latest national tragedy, the bombings at the Boston Marathon. Tragedies always seem to end up quickly becoming storylines in each and every single person's life — no matter how far away we were and no matter how tenuous or nonexistent our connection.
After 9-11, for example, it seemed like suddenly every one in the entire United States of America was either in New York City or the Washington, DC area on that day, or was supposed to have been on one of those doomed flights. The physics of this is amazing, let alone the psychology. Even those who were honest about not being anywhere near the incidents often talked about how traumatized they were — how traumatized they still are.
People I know in "Flyover Country" — those mostly flat but beautiful states in the middle of America — had to express to me, with tight grips on my arms and wild wide looks, how fearful and stressed they still are. Panicked! I could die at any minute! It could happen to me!
I love "Flyover Country": one side of my family comes from there and I adore my dearly-departed mother, who comes from the tiniest of towns in the Northeast corner of Iowa, where the rest of her extended family still resides. But…. I'm very, very sorry — many Americans don't even know where you are, let alone some inspired terrorist, whether here or on the other side of the world.
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Don't even get me started on the millions spent on "terrorism protection" for a road connecting two of the small towns near me that happens to cross a water reservoir…. Because yes, small towns high up in the mountains of Colorado show up on a map found internationally — heck, some of my friends from the city near me can't even find my adopted hometown without help!
I understand the instinct: the need to connect, to empathize, to be a part of an experience. It's why we call them "shared experiences"; why we call them "national tragedies."
In the nitty-gritty though, they are not. They are not shared and they are not national — they are so very deeply personal. The families that lost loved ones do not see what they are going through as your experience, your tragedy. They see it only as theirs.
I have been on the "periphery" of far too many tragedies, and perhaps because of my connections to these tragedies, I deeply understand the need for people to want to be a part of it — as bizarre and awful as that sounds. As why? Why would you want to be a part of a tragedy? Why would you want to share or experience that?
I can tell you that my tiny experiences in these tragedies are more than I would want any one else to go through — let alone the experiences of those directly involved…. And my experiences — my "all about me" — were tiny indeed:
Working in the U.S. Capitol and hearing what I think simply must be nothing more than a stack of chairs falling, until a Capitol Police officer runs by with his gun drawn and his radio cackling about "Shots fired, shots fired. Man down." Learning quickly that a gunman had entered the building just down the stairs from our office, two officers were down (and sadly both died), and who knows if there might be another gunman…. And doing nothing more then taking a single deep breath before turning to address the phones that now won't stop ringing as reporters try desperately to get information about the shooting, and we're the only ones "open", the only ones answering. In brief moments, staring up at our bank of televisions — I worked in the press office of a member of leadership, so we had four televisions on the wall covering all major networks — and realizing that the information I just gave to a reporter was being read aloud on national television moments after I said it.
Being chaotically evacuated from a U.S. Senate building during 9-11 because the U.S. Capitol and Congressional complex was thought to be a target. Herding frightened young staffers into my home nearby and setting up an orderly "line" to use my landline phone as cell service had crashed completely, and every one needed to call home and reassure frantic family members that they were still alive and well. Dragging every TV in my house into one room so we could watch…watch….. Do nothing but watch…. Shocked and horrified. And then finding out in bits and pieces that people I knew, loved, called friends, had died. Showing up at work the next morning knowing that as speechwriter, I now had to try to put into words what words could not express.
Sitting slightly dumbfounded knowing I had just spent hours in the Senate building that they were now announcing had to be evacuated immediately due to anthrax. Wondering if the treatment was worth the risk, or whether the risk was worth the treatment.
And, of course, as I recently wrote, standing in a store in a mall hearing about bombs exploding at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, the marathon my sister was running for the first time, the finish line she was due to be crossing at what we thought was any moment. (She was, thankfully, not yet at the finish line and made it home unscathed.)
All of them, periphery. To put it symbolically: I wasn't playing the game. But, I certainly wasn't just watching the game on television, or, even worse, via Twitter or Facebook. I was standing on the sidelines. Close enough in some cases to smell the sweat or see the blood, but never enough to make actual contact.
And you know, that's the funny thing. Being that close, and yet so far, means that panic, trauma, stress, seem meaningless. Those things make no sense on the sidelines. At least never initially. It's all about what needs to be done, what information must be gathered, what knowledge must be gained.
I've learned that until you actually know something — something concrete, verifiable, real — there is no point in panic, trauma, or stress. No point in worrying, no point in freaking out, no point in anything but being calm.
I also learned that good always outweighs, overcomes, overshadows the evil. From the unfathomable actions of good like the first responders who rushed in to both the World Trade Center buildings and the Pentagon to the small actions of good like the people who gave their marathon medals to runners unable to finish. From giving blood to donating money to writing cards of support to even posting thoughts and prayers on, yes, Twitter or Facebook — the good will always eventually outshine and overwhelm the evil.
Finally, I learned that the reason the good ultimately wins over the bad is because of the fact that people do feel connected even if they were not. And, in making it all about them, "all about me," they may actually do something. To help, to make a difference, to actually put weight behind the idea that it is about them. As in helping, they can truthfully say it was about them, "about me," and what they did to help.
And in that — perhaps selfish, self-centered — act, the good wins.
Jana Novak, who has co-written two books, is a freelance writer who lives in Frisco.
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