EVERYTHING WILL BE OKAY: A more nuanced ‘Boston Strong’

I‘ve devoted a lot of my life to finding the right words — to explain, to explore, to sometimes inspire.

The phrase “Boston Strong” didn’t sit right with me 10 years ago after the Marathon bombings. No, that’s an understatement. It made me ache and seethe. I’ll explain why in a minute. But I’ve come to understand the solace those words provided and still do.

For a lot of people, the call to be “Boston Strong” was necessary to get through those terrifying days and an aftermath filled with so much loss. The words helped summon something, some measure of determination to bear the unbearable. It was and is a collective call to community.

Still, “Boston Strong” didn’t apply to many people’s emotional experiences. One-size-fits-all definitions rarely do. It can be isolating to not fit the resilience mold our culture creates, pain deepening with each realization that the trauma you experienced made you feel the opposite of stronger.

I grappled with this dissonance in the aftermath of 9/11 when feeling similarly isolated and not at all stronger set me on a journey to redefine resilience. The ideas I came to were that trauma can make you unrecognizable, even to yourself. It can break you. That resilience isn’t an off-the-shelf tool every person can grab and apply to their situation, like strapping on a psychic strength-training resistance belt. If we’re “strong,” this theory goes, we can withstand the blow until it recedes and reshapes with the passage of time.

Rather, I believe resilience looks more like building a life of meaning and joy, always cognizant of the foundation of the loss and pain that remains. You move forward and carry both — pain and joy.

The metaphor that worked for me was comparing this process to the making of sea glass — to a bottle tossed in the sea, tumbled about in the water, the sand and the salt until it becomes something else entirely, yet still capable of bringing joy. Maybe you have your own way of thinking about resilience. It seems we have now made room for those and for a more nuanced definition of what it means to be “Boston Strong.”

With this Marathon anniversary, memorialized with the kind of saturation coverage such moments demand, I sensed a shift. I watched and read in the media a recognition that Boston Strong doesn’t quite capture what needs to be captured.

There was the thoughtful story of a childhood friend of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev who has struggled to explain what it’s like to have a best friend you thought you knew but who is actually a monster. There was an interview with the head of the trauma unit at Boston Medical Center who finally dared say out loud what she thought 10 years ago: Why don’t we pay attention to the daily trauma inflicted on the people she regularly treats, some who also lose limbs?

There was the painful story of the sister of a Boston cop who continues to fight to have her brother’s death — a year after the bombings from injuries suffered during the Watertown manhunt count — as a casualty of that day. Imagine having to fight so the tragic death of your loved one is part of a community’s narrative.

And there were the interviews with the survivors who lost limbs and lost loved ones. Maybe I was looking for it, but there seemed to be more willingness than in years past to share realities like “some days I’m not OK, some days totally suck, and some days I’m not sure I can get out of bed.” Or maybe they were saying that all along, and it was us who weren’t ready to hear them.

I don’t believe time heals — it’s another story we tell ourselves — but perhaps I need to reconsider that black-and-white belief, too. Time does soften raw edges of fear and pain. It does allow a broader awareness and compassion for complex reactions to trauma.

That certainly is the case for me and my appreciation that “Boston Strong” isn’t perfect but it helps. If time doesn’t heal, it sure does educate. I’m grateful for that.

Virginia Buckingham is the president of the Current’s board of directors. Her column appears weekly.

Virginia Buckingham

A member of the Marblehead Current’s Board of Directors, Virginia Buckingham is the former chief executive officer of the Massachusetts Port Authority, chief of staff to two Massachusetts governors, deputy editorial page editor for the Boston Herald and author of “On My Watch: A Memoir.” 

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