A week ago Sunday, the day before the Boston Marathon, I attended the local half-marathon in support of my family. After the race, I joked that it was good knowing I have family members who can run 13 miles. If an apocalypse were ever to happen, someone would be able to run for help or to get food. (I think of everything in terms of an apocalypse: how to stay in contact with people, how to get food, what would happen if I couldn’t get my meds, etc.)
Personally, I’ve never had an interest in participating in a marathon and I’ve never understood why someone would want to. I could understand the personal challenge, the competitive aspect of finishing the race within a certain amount of time or with a time better than a previous race, beating the majority of runners in a specific age or gender group. I think what I didn’t get was the intrinsic value of completing a race like this. For example, what’s the payoff for those who participate in marathons for a cause (other than financial) or after a personal crisis? As someone with lupus, I am familiar with the Lupus Run/Walk and support bringing about greater awareness of the disease, but how exactly would it help me or advance lupus research? The truth is, until recently, I didn’t think about marathons too much. And then I had the opportunity to watch people as they ended their race, some finishing alone, or in pairs, as a group, and even couples pushing their small child in a stroller.
I was able to get a spot near the finish line, close enough that if I had reached out my hand I could have touched some of the runners. I wasn’t sure what to expect. It took me a minute to gather myself, overwhelmed (as I tend to get) among a crowd of people, a little disconcerted by the cheering and the announcer calling out the names of runners as they crossed the finish line. (I heard the names of two of my doctors over the speakers. Can’t get away from them. Ever.) Eventually, I found myself focused on the faces of runners as they came down the “chute” and passed us by.
As with most blog posts and unlike the fiction I write, I don’t know where I’m going with all this. Maybe I’m fumbling to explain moments that didn’t happen or that only existed because I had some great expectation of the people who managed to run 13 miles. Maybe I was looking for a transformation or an epiphany. I know I’m still not planning to run a marathon, but maybe I understand the appeal of such an experience just a little bit better. What follows is my feeble attempt to grasp the connections between us.
So: I watched the faces of the runners, assuming there would be a lot of gasping and pained expressions — and I did see some of that. But I also saw something else, some change to their countenance. I could say the look was one of exaltation, yet that description isn’t quite accurate. What I saw felt intensely personal, an internal human experience rising to the surface. I teared up a little, caught off-guard, uncomfortable with what was happening on the faces of these strangers. It’s impossible to describe what I saw in a straightforward manner when what I saw wasn’t anything direct or recognizable. And yet it was palpable. More than simple joy or pride or even a combination of feelings, it was like I had looked into an actual living soul — or whatever it is that sparks our emotions and ideas and combines with suffering and pleasure. I had no way to understand or prepare myself for that. In fact, I felt as though I were seeing something I shouldn’t and I almost wish I hadn’t; but I think I needed that, to remember that there is so much more to all of us.
If I had spoken to each of those runners, would they have been able to describe what it was I saw? What it meant? Beyond a sense of accomplishment or physical discomfort or relief that it was all over, what did they experience? Would they have recognized or recalled this beautiful, mysterious, vulnerable moment in themselves? I’m not sure they would have.
Last Monday, after learning of the horrible attack on the people attending and participating in the Boston Marathon, I could think only of those faces.
Later in the week, I thought about the two suspects, as well as the self-appointed internet vigilantes, and the lives they hurt in the name of vengeance and justice and God and Reddit. I wonder whose faces they saw, if they even bothered to look beyond their own petty ideas and self-righteousness to see human beings and human experiences individually and collectively, to see beyond their need for violent actions and false claims. I think they only saw faces, if that, and nothing more as they sought out people to blame and punish.
Today, I’d want to ask this question of the surviving brother, the lone suspect: What did you feel other than your hate? What did you see other than yourself and what you thought you deserved? And why did you think murder was the right response? The world has seen your face and we agree it’s a sad and cowardly one. For now, we can see nothing beyond that.