“I Was Just…” (Living at Half-Mast)

Half Mast by jrodmanjr at Flickr

Flags at Half Mast

Living, as I do, in Boston it’s no surprise (it’s actually a source of gratitude) that over the past day I have received texts, tweets, and Facebook messages inquiring into my safety. I was not, thankfully, either a spectator or participant in the Boston Marathon. (N.B.: some of my fellow Jesuits were, but thankfully none were injured.

In the aftermath of yet another senseless tragedy, I’m struck by what I’d call the “was just” reaction. Personally, I “was just” down by the Atlantic Fish Company the other day.

I “was just” in that neighborhood to see Irish dancers a week ago.

Some family member “was just” there moments before the explosion and left before the detonation.

Some family member or friend “was just” arriving when it went off.

An 8-year old boy “was just” there watching the marathon when his life was cut short.

Each of us will remember, again, what we were doing when we learned of the bombing: I “was just…” when it happened.

I “was just” getting out of the shower when I heard of the 9/11 attacks.

I “was just” leaving to go to class in 2007 when I heard of the Virginia Tech shootings.

I “was just” on a mid-class break when I learned of the Newtown shooting.

I “was just” taking a nap when Anne texted me about yesterday’s bombing.

A friend of mine, PJ Shelton, SJ, shared this evening that he feels as though we’re living in a half-mast society: our lives, these last years, seem more to be marked and defined by national tragedies than they do national celebrations. I have no doubt that good is stronger than evil, that light will vanquish the darkness, yet it seems as though we, as a nation, spend more time in mourning, more time responding to tragedy than we do working constructively against it.

Our unity, as a people, seems possible only in grief rather than in a common goal; only in tragedy and sorrow than in achievement and celebration.

Many of us, across the world, will tuck another “was just” into our memories as a way of recording what happened yesterday. April 15, 2013, will be remembered as the day one “was just…” when she or he learned of what happened. Like so many other days in our nation’s recent history, yesterday will be defined by violence and sorrow. Runners, spectators, security officials, volunteers, and family members: so many passed by those sites, so many can say “I was just…”. The survivors, the victims, the ones left behind: each “was just” doing something, standing somewhere, when their worlds were transformed by this appalling and senseless act of violence.

We are, all of us, sharers in this story. My fear is that this day, this event, will be memorialized and enshrined as a pristine memory rather than being a touchstone for what we need as a people: a deep, sustained reflection on the violence of our culture and real ways we can address what is clearly a growing problem of terrible violence in our country and in our world. Unless we summon the courage to put aside our political ideologies and work together, our nation’s history will record not the triumphs of women and men working together for a shared goal or common good but, rather, a series of “was justs” recounting the moments when unspeakable horror changed the lives of the innocent and cast the shadow of a flag lowered to half-mast across our nation.

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