No One Was Smiling Today: San Francisco Feeling The Boston Marathon Tragedy

“[In response to the Boston Marathon tragedy]… Whatever ‘ism’ is yours you may be lulled by it shortly- seduced to exclude parts of yourself or your community.  Your biological drive to fend off mortality by clamoring for what you can get control over may take root and compassion will get thrown out the window.” -Traci Ruble

Originally Published at Psyched in San Francisco

I love my job.  I love dropping my kids off at school and getting in to San Francisco when the air is fresh, the city is waking up, and people are bustling with their torso-sized coffees in to their office buildings, days filled with possibility.  My favorite part is watching people as they walk by, wondering what thoughts move through their head, if they are as delighted as I am to be in downtown San Francisco or if they are even aware and paying attention to any nuance of their own.  Usually, I see at least one delightful thing.  Today I noticed the Yerba Buena Gardens installed old truck beds on the sidewalk and turned them into street planters with  beautiful succulents and a built in bench.  Usually I notice some outfits that are mighty daring, extraordinary and flamboyant.  “I sure hope no one ever tames that person’s dressing” I think to myself.  Today I saw a woman wearing her dance clothes and legwarmers…gliding along with the litheness of a dancer….San Francisco is my land of Oz.  

Usually, at least three people, on my sojourn from BART or from the parking garage look up to smile.  No one was smiling today – not one conversation between friends, not one overheard phone call, not one delicious sip of coffee brought a smile to any face as I passed by.  This was a highly unusual morning.   Are they feeling the heartache I feel inside after listening to NPR this morning with Psychologist Jeff Greenberg?  I guessed yes, maybe because it was soothing for me and truth be told, the only good that comes out of tragedy is the sense of collective compassion that ensues for a short while after.  This tragedy hit home because I have been a runner for a long time and the sweet little running club in my town who may just have some the most oddly sweet people I have ever met on a list serve…were talking about the community run they are organizing tonight in homage to the victims of Monday’s Boston Marathon tragedy.

When I entered my office, the old Spreckles Building downtown, that itself survived the tragic 1906 earthquake, the woman waiting for the elevator smiled gloriously at me, “Good morning!” she said.  At this point, still mulling over the NPR discussion on how our psychology responds to tragic life-threatening events and the smile-less streets of San Francisco,  I was more acutely in touch with my own heartache in juxtaposition to her cheery smile.  

The doorman whom I have known for almost 7 years said “How are you today?” 

I smiled sheepishly and said “Just OK.  How about you?”  

“Grateful” he said.

“Yeah” I replied feeling flat and sullen aware I didn’t feel grateful in the moment and entered the elevator.  As I did, the smiling woman turned as if wanting to know why the “just ok”.  I said, “Yeah still seems the Monday tragedy is in the air and alive in the city today.”

“Yes I think all these tragedies are going to be something we are making sense of and processing for a long time” she nodded.

This is yet again, what I love about San Francisco.  This was an elevator conversation with a woman I had never met but yet there is a willingness by so many in this city to “be in process”.  Now it is the end of my day, a day of deep process work with others working to stay open and conscious in their own versions of heartache.  I am aware as I write I want to respond to what I heard on NPR this morning and what I heard driving home, infused with the hopefulness and authenticity of San Francsico.  After tragedies where our mortality is in question, after the incident has long passed out of our conscious awareness our unconscious remembers, said Dr. Greenberg.   For up to two years after the incident we unconsciously are still chewing on our own mortality.  Complete this word…….COFF________.  Most will make the word coffin within two years of a tragic incident otherwise most complete the word as coffee.

And what do we all do when the grim reaper is hanging out in our unconscious and the collective compassion has worn off?  We cling dearly, devotedly and fanatically to our compensations – those things we do or have done that have helped us feel powerful or soothed or in control over our survival.  You can see it today when you hear what the Westborough Baptist Church is proclaiming…that the bombings are punishment from God and so they will protest the funerals of those who have died.  You saw the same thing in the uptick of gun control fanaticism- pro and con post Sandyhook.  Whatever ‘ism’ is yours you may be lulled by it shortly- seduced to exclude parts of yourself or your community.  Your biological drive to fend off mortality by clamoring for what you can get control over may take root and compassion will get thrown out the window.  Mine will probably too.

Here is my wish, after these terrible terrible things.  My wish is we choose to challenge ourselves and catch ourselves in the act of clamping down in fear and anger by clinging inflexibly to anything….politics, church, substances, work, hypochondria, psychology, new age spirituality, guns, revenge…anything that we cling to to cut ourselves off from greater awareness and compassion for ourselves and others.  I also hope that these tragedies increase our awareness of people who live tragically every day in their lives because of their circumstances and just maybe it sheds some light on why they seem so stuck, unable to lift themselves out.  Can we use our stuckness to have compassion for theirs?  They too are clinging to their “isms” in an attempt to ward off their grim reaper daily.  Everyone is trying to heal and our nervous systems and brains are survivalists but sometimes the hard wiring our brains and bodies are wired to do in survival mode make healing a winding and often illogical road.  

I hope in our grief, we can stay open and breathe and care and keep the collective compassion alive long after the Boston Marathon Tragedy has left the foreground.  For all who have and are suffering this or any tragedy…sending you much good will, compassion and openness.