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Fear, Fearlessness, and the Boston Marathon Bombing

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My family and I were hobbling back to our hotel room yesterday afternoon after I finished running the Boston Marathon when we noticed the shops in the mall we were walking through were closing. It looked as though people were being shuttled outside. And then we saw that the fire alarms were flashing. But it wasn’t until we went back outside that we first heard the word “explosion” mentioned, or saw everybody on the street talking on their cell phones. (A surprisingly eerie and ominous sight, I assure you.)

I had finished the race about an hour before and we were well out of harm’s way when the bombs went off and the race was suspended. But we were not unaffected. My husband and I spent much of the next few hours responding to phone calls and texts and e-mails and Facebook postings inquiring about our safety. And we wondered what impact this, and the news report we had turnd on, would have on our boys.

Certainly they were aware that something was not quite right. When we turned on the news my older son, who turns 6 tomorrow, helpfully informed his 3-year-old brother of what had just been said on the TV. “Oh! There were two bombs! And two people are dead and twenty-three injured.” (That was the report at the time.) I was a little surprised at how unconcered they were. They had no problem switching from, “There were two bombs!” to “Let’s go to the pool!”

And we did go to the pool. We had a great time. Then we dried off, changed clothes, and went to dinner. My husband and I exchanged concerned glances as we passed by the SWAT police officer standing with his assault rifle just outside our hotel, but the boys didn’t even notice him.

Perhaps their lack of concern was troubling to me. And maybe I was feeling like I needed do something to keep my kids safe even if it was entirely unrelated to the bombing. Perhaps that is why, after dinner, I felt like I needed to remind them that they are to never ever ever go near water a lake, a river, an ocean, a pool unless Mom or Dad are with them. Truth be told, I wanted to make them afraid, just a little bit, of the water.

But by the end of my little spiel, my older son was wiping away tears, whether from fear of the water he had just been playing in or because he thought I was mad at him, I haven’t been able to get out of him. So in addition to our water safety talk, we had a longer lecture/discussion about learning to be safe but not afraid.

I was puzzled for a minute or two about how my son could shrug off the explosions so easily but be driven to tears by the water conversation. It didn’t take me too long to figure out: Their proximity to the bombing was unimportant. They did not see it happen. Both their parents were with them and unharmed (aside from their mother’s sore knee). It didn’t involve them in any real way. But they do love to swim and play in the water. The knowledge that danger lurks under the surface of something so fun was and is troubling. For all of us.

And why did I feel like I needed to scare my children? Was it really because they showed so little concern at having been within a couple of blocks of a deadly bomb? I think not. Not entirely. I think it was because there are things I can do to protect my children and things I can’t. Placing the bomb and the swimming pool in such stark relief reminded me of that. Nobody knows when or where there may be an explosion (bomb, gas leak, or whatever). That is something I cannot really protect my children from. But I can and should protect them (as much as possible) from swimming pools, cars, knives, fire, etc. And to do that requires alerting them to the danger and teaching them how to avoid it. Being safe, being aware of the danger, but not so frightened of it that they are paralyzed by it. In the face of powerlessness, I zealously seized the opportunity to do something, anything, to feel like I was doing my job as a mom.

It was clearly not a perfect parenting moment. But as a parent, I did learn from it, or I think I am beginning to. I am realizing the value in teaching fearlessness in everyday life, but in helping to nurture healthy, protective fears alongside that fearlessness. We cannot live life if we are afraid to go outside, but neither can we live life if we don’t manage the dangers we are constantly faced with.

And the more I think of it, the more I think my son was right on track with his responses to the day’s events: he took the bombing with a matter-of-factness that mirrors, I believe, the resignation, the acceptance, we need to learn to live with in this imperfect world where people make bad, harmful decisions. But his deep feeling when confronted with the preventable tragedies reflects the urgent need to teach and nurture an informed caution and carefulness. For both kinds of tragedies there is only one response once they have happened: we must hope and help until those who have been hurt are healed.

Photo was taken this morning outside our hotel room window.

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