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Love That Dirty Water

Posted by: csjacobs | Posted on: May 29 , 2013 | Category: BusinessGeneralNeuroscience

The phrase that kept running through my mind was "a rent in the fabric of reality," and the image in my head was a tear in the painted backdrop of one of those light-hearted stage plays, revealing something dark and foreboding.

The day of the Boston Marathon bombings recalled others: the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the World Trade Center bombing. Once again, we were glued to the television, listening to the hapless newscasters filling the hours, retelling the same stories because there was nothing more to say.

I am a runner and live not far from Heartbreak Hill. My teenage daughters have friends in the Back Bay and often hang out on Bolyston Street where the bombs went off. Our city was one of those on lockdown that Friday during the manhunt for the terrorists.

This was just too close to home.

The day of the Marathon has always been one of celebration. Sometimes we would go to a barbeque at the house of friends right in the middle of Heartbreak Hill. It was always so inspiring to watch the wheelchair racers ahead of the runners. We would applaud wildly for everyone.

Now, it seemed as if the day forever would be marked by senseless tragedy. This was not a salvo in the war between East and West, we realized as we learned more about the terrorists. This had nothing to do with the thousand year religious battle.

This was simply the stupid act of pathetic losers. Having failed at athletics, school, and earning a living, this was a desperate attempt to salvage identity by blowing off the limbs of innocents. It was not epic, just pathetic.

Every week, my eldest daughter and I have dinner together at her favorite restaurant several blocks away from the site of the bombings. It is just our time to be friends: I don't exhort her to focus on school and she doesn't lobby for piercings and tattoos.

On the night that the area of the bombings was reopened to the public, she asked me to drive by on our way home from dinner. I was hesitant because of the memories it would bring up, but I agreed.

When we got to the finish line, there was the running shoe store that had its front blown off by the blast. We had seen image after image of the destruction. But now, the store was back to what it had been. New plate glass had been installed and the window was full of shoes. "Boston Strong" was painted across it. Crowds milled around in front, almost as if in celebration.

Suddenly, my daughter and I felt better. The pall was lifted.

In "The Other Side of Normal," neuroscientist Jordan Smoller describes how the effect of the fear circuits tied to memories is mitigated. When we stop remembering, the networks weaken. If we generate a positive response to the memory, the negative is, if you will, written over. Clearly, that's what the site of the restored storefront did for us.

We won't ever forget the sadness of that day, but now it's part of a bigger story where the tragedy has made us stronger, perhaps than we ever were. The city looks forward to the next marathon and has promised it will be bigger and better than ever. Even I've pledged to forego the barbeque and run it myself.

There is a lesson here for leaders.

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