How to Survive a Terrorist Attack (When it Happens a Thousand Miles Away)

My very first reaction when I heard the news about the terrorist bombing in Manchester, England, was “I can’t deal with this right now.” It had been a busy, short-staffed day at work and I was tired. I heated up a plate of leftover chana masala, washed some grapes, poured a glass of milk, and sat down with my husband to watch an episode of Mad Men.

But the next morning after seeing more details coming in, I needed to be a human being again. I read some of the stories and I let myself cry. I lit a candle and gazed into the flame and tried to pray, but for what? For the end to this madness, for the pouring of blessings on the lost souls, and gifts of strength and support for those whose loved ones were murdered? I couldn’t focus.

And I didn’t want to read the angry, frustrated, hate-filled comments about this on Facebook or at the end of articles. I didn’t want to compound the pain of tragedy and loss with the awfulness of vindictiveness and vows for revenge.

How do we survive a terrorist attack when it didn’t directly happen to us? I didn’t know anyone directly affected by the attack, but I can’t deny my heart the need to grieve.

As I gaze out the window at my tidy little neighborhood in the Midwest, I can feel a ping of smugness that It Won’t Happen Here. But I travel, I attend big concerts in other cities, my children also go to places where crowds gather, favorite targets of terrorists. And although we were unscathed as we all watched the latest news unfolding, it didn’t lessen the tragedy. The same level of horror and anguish still existed; it was just located geographically elsewhere.

My usual way of confronting something big and complicated is to break it into pieces. I found seven candles and lit them one-by-one, each with their own prayer, creating a sloppy, but centered, ceremony of grief and compassion.

Candle One – For the perpetrator

Let in the wonder. Why would someone be coerced into carrying a backpack full of explosives and blow themselves up in a crowded place? I have a hard time believing that person stood there, bearing the weight of the backpack and bearing the weight of what he was about to do, with the feeling that “this is right and good.” I feel that this person was also a victim; a victim of lack of understanding and support somewhere in his life that made him vulnerable to the ideals of murderers.

Candle Two – For the victims

Let in the wonder. What happens to a soul that is happy and elated and enjoying music and is surrounded by other celebrating souls, then is violently and abruptly taken from the Earth? What happens to the unfulfilled plans and promises?

Candle Three – For the loved ones

The wonder ends. There are people who have lost someone dear at a time when it wasn’t supposed to happen. All of the love and support and nurturing they poured into this beloved person now suddenly has nowhere to go. This flow of feeling can’t just stop. It can turn into a flow of anger and revenge and darkness, and it can flow into compassion for other sufferers, it will likely be like an unchecked fire hose flailing this way and that way, trying to be tamed, but not wanting it to be tamed because the release feels cathartic. It doesn’t matter if it serves no clear purpose. It really doesn’t need to at this point. All we can do is send love.

Candle Four – For our safety

We question our own safety. Do we stay away from crowds? Do we stop attending beloved festivals? Do we stay away from big cities? Do we question anew our decision to fly? Certainly we can content ourselves with running errands locally, going for bike rides, and watching shows on Netflix? Do we really need to go anywhere? We know the awesomeness of live music, but do we really need to see it?

But is that even the question? Couldn’t we just as easily meet our demise driving a car, choking on a grape, or tripping on the stairs? Do we really want the focus of our lives to be avoiding death?

Candle Five – For the safety of our loved ones

We can’t keep our children locked in their homes and we can’t keep them from doing things they love to do. At the same time, we can’t worry about them constantly. When they attend a concert, we have the choice of being happy they are having a good time, or we can worry about the remote chance they will be a victim of violence. It is a choice we can make.

Candle Six – For the relinquishment of control

It takes some time to come around to the realization that we can’t keep death away. We can’t protect the vulnerable from being preyed upon by madmen, we can’t stop a truck from barreling into a crowd of Christmas shoppers. We need to boldly go out into life and enjoy it recklessly. That much we can control.

Candle Seven – For making a difference

We can make a difference in the environments that are our lives. We can find ways to plant goodness and start that ripple of love and kindness. Sometimes it’s as simple as a smile, or holding a door for someone behind us, or hanging back and letting that confused driver find their exit without reacting. Sometimes it’s writing a $20 check to a nonprofit we care about, or taking part in event planned by a beloved friend. Sometimes it’s making a meal at the homeless shelter and sitting down and eating with them and being touched when they pray for those less fortunate than them. Sometimes it’s stopping someone when they are about to go on a tirade about Muslims and gently reminding them that these terrorists are by no stretch of the imagination practicing Islam.

It’s easy to be overwhelmed by all the damage in the world and feel despair and hopelessness. But we have opportunities to heal and change things placed in front of us every day. It is irresponsible and further damaging to the world to not respond lovingly to them.

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Sometimes life crowds out the muse, and this summer is like that. Other projects are elbowing their way into my Woo Woo Ware time, so I will take a break for a few weeks. Please enjoy the rest of your summer – draw a flower, admire the clouds, find some nourishing waters to counteract the summer heat – and let’s regroup in the fall. See you when the leaves change.

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“Do we really want the focus of our lives to be avoiding death?”

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