Transforming Terror’s Negative Space

Z010456-R01-016-6AOn this crazy, chaotic Friday, I write this as we await a conclusion to the manhunt for the Boston Marathon attack’s “suspect number two,” whose older brother was killed in a shoot-out with police last night.

It’s the end of an awful week that began at one of America’s most iconic sporting events, a celebration shattered by the terror and devastation of two bombs that killed three people and wounded close to 200.

Apart from the pain we feel for the victims and their families, what remains for all Americans is the uncertainty and fear that comes with knowing that terrorism is still a part of our reality. With that reality comes the question of what we do with terror’s “negative space.”

What do I mean by that?

Negative Space exampleThe concept of negative space is well known in several disciplines but can be hard to grasp. It’s not actually negative in connotation; it’s often meant by what is not as opposed to what is. It’s easiest to see in photography, where sometimes it refers to a predominant background that forms part of the subject (as in the photo above). Sometimes, negative space becomes the subject when that space is seen in new light (as in the images to the left). In language, it can refer to what is read between the lines, or to the spare form of a poem.

When it comes to terrorism, I see negative space as whatever our psyche confronts in the aftermath of terror’s physical destruction. We don’t have complete control over it, of course, but over time we do have choices to make, and we can reshape and redefine that negative space.

It’s hard to consider something like negative space in relation to an event like the Boston Marathon, which is such a tremendous physical as well as spiritual accomplishment.

I emphasize the spiritual because, if you’ve ever completed a marathon – I ran the Tucson Marathon in December 2000 – you realize that what you achieved physically is maybe only half the matter. Amid the challenges of training – long, lonely runs, injuries, illness – you learn that you need to get your head right.

In other words, you need to tap into your spiritual side – your soul, your consciousness, your life force – to fortify yourself mentally so that you’ll stick to your training, you’ll learn to be patient, and hopefully you’ll find a way to develop zen-like consciousness that can sometimes turn physical pain and drudgery into bliss. I was lucky enough to experience a few moments of bliss during my own marathon experience, after having overcome two major set-backs — a pesky injury and a sudden illness — during my long journey of marathon training.

Any distance runner good enough to qualify for the Boston Marathon understands the importance of spiritual development in running, and likely runs marathons for the spiritual as much as for the physical benefits.

Runners’ family and friends may not fully share in the zen-like vibe that comes with regular distance running, but what they see is inspiring, and they want to support it. So they gather to watch and wait and eventually greet their loved ones with jubilation at the finish line.

Imagine how shocking and spiritually crushing the terrorist attack was for all of the people at the  Boston Marathon there to just celebrate life.

Those injured or killed, and their families and friends, experienced a level of tragedy and loss that I do not understand and I am not attempting to express here.

But for the rest of us, the Boston Marathon attack was an assault on our spirit. We were its object as well, and we rightly see that terrorism continues to threaten our way of life.

It’s hard to fill terror’s negative space with nothing but the fear that terrorists strive to foster. In policy terms, it’s hard to resist the desire for ever tighter security measures that may ultimately infringe upon our rights and freedoms.

But so often we also find that, in the face of terror, our spirit finds strength.

In President Barack Obama’s remarks yesterday at the Interfaith Service in Boston, he quoted a scripture passage telling us to “run with endurance the race that is set before us.”

The President expressed the nation’s collective grief for the victims and their families, but he also spoke of the storied Bostonian resolve as “the greatest rebuke” to those who perpetrated the attack.

In terror’s negative space, we can – and do – replace fear and uncertainty with compassion, love, and power.

And that is how our spirit endures, and finds a way to carry on.

Like 78-year-old Boston Marathon runner, Bill Iffrig, who was seen getting knocked down by the first bomb’s shock waves just yards from the finish line. Luckily, he suffered only a scraped knee. He was helped up, brushed off and he made his way to the finish line.

[If you’d like to donate to the families of those killed or injured in the Boston Marathon bombings, Governor Deval Patrick and Boston Mayor Tom Menino set up a fund called The One Fund Boston, visit their website by clicking here. For more ways to donate, go here.]