Loneliness. Medicine. As I stand over my sink in the darkest part of the night, I find myself praying for Dzhokhar. And I know how this must sound—how dare you think good thoughts for a suspected “terrorist”? Let alone pray for him. But I keep thinking about loneliness and all it leads me to. In my experience, loneliness is the bitterest medicine known to man, the sharpest knife. It is the wind that carves the face of stone. Loneliness is the medicine that makes us feel we are wandering among strangers in the secret hearts inside of us, even in the arms of our beloveds. I imagine that loneliness is some of what Dzhokhar felt as he built small explosives and set out to angrily and foolishly bomb a marathon.
The thing is, I teach at the institution where he was a student. He lived in our dorms, had friends, went to parties. People knew him, just like “any other” college kid. And he wasn’t an outlier as far as anyone has explained to me, in much of anything. When I returned to my classes on Tuesday of this week, I broached the subject with my students and offered a space for them to speak about the incident. After all, our campus had been evacuated on Friday, FBI and police were all over the place and a black hawk helicopter was pictured by news crews on the quad—something I was pretty certain I’d never see. I wasn’t even on campus and I felt a little shell-shocked by it. That, combined with a grandiose level of media saturation had left me feeling deeply tired and depleted and wishing the semester was already over. But my students were pretty clear that they didn’t want to talk about it. I recalled that after the Patriot’s big super bowl loss, they were similarly stoic and irked when I asked them how they felt. I chalked it up to cultural mores, thinking, well that’s a typical New Englander way to handle it I guess.
But by yesterday, a student came to my office and specifically asked me if he could tell me his story. He too was overwhelmed and shocked by the events. Dzhokhar had been a friend, someone he has spent time with in his freshman year and he seemed like he couldn’t wrap his head around why this would happen, why this young man would do something like that? I found myself responding, at first with the kinds of questions the media has trained us to ask: were there any signs, did you know him well, what do you think his motivations were? But then I stopped myself. I reminded my student and myself that there are things we don’t know about the mystery of being a human; there are things we’ll never have the answers to. I found my thoughts wandering back and forth, first to the idea of allowing there to be a groundless, place of enigma in my own understanding, and then to my protective response for my student, for his innocence and for his safety. After all, I am grateful that my students weren’t physically harmed. But somehow, even that worry places blame on me. It arises from assumptions about Dzhokhar, things I cannot know. Did he really want to inflict pain on others? Did he know what that would mean? Was he planning to harm his fellow students? Did this place drive him to it? Things I will likely never have the opportunity to know.
And so, in the night as I stand over my sink running warm water through my hands I think about the ripples that emanate out from our beings, through our actions and feelings. My student was shaken by this experience and it is clear that the actions of his young, fellow classmate have impacted his worldview. This is substantial and reminds me that the webs of our connection are immense and symbiotic, if still asymmetrical. As he sat in my office, he said he didn’t know what to do now, with his future. I remembered feeling that way as well in college and it seemed like an enormous weight to bear. I remember being in a constant state of anxiety about the future at that age. Add to that the emotional havoc wreaked by feeling that your own campus is unsafe and you’ve got a recipe for some real instability. So I told him what my real training, not my professor identity, has informed me to do: slow down and breathe. This is the training I’ve received in countless hours on my yoga mat, in the rooms of 12-step recovery and in the silent meditation rooms of my childhood, commune days. Slow down and breathe. Relax. Let the answer find you. Trust that if you are open, good things will come and you will know what the right decision is when you come to it.
As I drove yesterday, images of Dzhokhar flashed in my mind. I found myself imagining him there, in a hospital bed under constant watch, the authorities waiting until he could speak to question him, waiting for him to live so they can get some answers about why a 19 year old kid would do a thing like this. And I wonder if they will ask him about what it is like to be a Chechen. Last Friday morning, my sweetheart and I sat in my kitchen talking about it and he pulled up an article about what the Chechens have lived through. Essentially they have survived the efforts of the Russians to ethnically and religiously cleanse them from the face of the earth. From the Stalinist era where they were herded into trains and left to die on the Siberian Tundra to the early 2000’s where they were engaged in revolt with Russia for their sovereignty and 80,000 of them—men, women and children, were killed. Why are we not talking about the cultural trauma this kid was coming out of? No, I am not saying this is an excuse. I’m not even really interested in the answer. I am interested in the cultural response of my own country to this event. That is more telling of why a kind of thing like this might happen. It’s a reminder that we are rarely willing to understand deeply, the forces that act on individuals or our interconnections with each other. But it seems to me that if you come from a world of war, injustice and terror, responding with an act of war, injustice and terror isn’t that far off.
And people will say that this doesn’t matter, that it doesn’t matter the reason, there is no excuse. What we really mean might be, there is no excuse in America, for Americans. But the other truth might be that we don’t just live in America. We live in the world. The events of the last week feel like yet another opportunity to consider this truth. And, so, loneliness? Is Dzhokhar left to his loneliness now? Is this bitter teacher sitting on the edge of his hospital bed as I would hope, showing him the meaning of what he’s done? Or is he held in the cloying arms of our security system? Or are they, in the end, the same thing.
So, I prayed for him and for the future young men from territories of war. I prayed for the floodgates of perspective to open and flow through those dark places and to guide those citizens to higher planes of action. And in the end, I prayed because I am connected to Dzhokhar. The butterfly wings of interrelationships are beating against my cheek. I may have passed his sharp, haunted face in some hallway, he may have held a door open for me, or I him. I prayed because that is what I know to do for even the darkest parts of myself. I know not to turn away in scorn and fear because that is never a real solution. As one of my favorite yoga teachers says, “Breathe into the places that are expanding.” Sometimes an expansion of understanding is the most painful thing.
We have been shown again this week how little safety and security there really is in this world. We have been reminded that those who are cradled by war will reenact it. Those who suffer will not always transcend it; they will often repeat it. And here I am, a professor. This week has been a chance too, for me to remember that a part of my job is exactly this, to remind my students to transcend, to show them how in the best ways I know. To not get caught up in questions that only seek answers and not contexts. To not get lost in anger and disbelief but to pay attention to our connections to others, to our human relationships of closeness and kindness, the best protection against fear. And truly, to not fear our loneliness, but to see it as one of our most powerful medicines, one that can shape us for good or for evil depending on what we, as sovereign beings choose. It is a medicine not to be taken lightly. God, it is not to be taken lightly at all.