On April 15, I was one of the 27,000 runners of the Boston Marathon, and luckily was several blocks away from the tragedy on Boylston Street. Being a runner gives me some insight into the moral depth of those who finished the race and then sprinted back into the carnage.
At the end of a marathon, the runner’s body is depleted of every remaining ounce of strength. The body has begun to extract energy by tapping deep fat stores, causing searing pain. The liver has gone into a semi-shock: It releases enzymes that remain in the body for a few weeks. The legs are threadbare, the lungs sear and the heart is pounding dangerously. What remains, for most runners, is mere willpower, and not much of it.
Despite all that, several of the finishers sprinted into danger and administered aid to those injured and maimed by the bombs.
What do we make of this? First, courage and heroism are moral qualities. We are hard-wired to flee from danger, not run to it. What we saw that day, and see every day in every community where crisis occurs, is the triumph of human goodness. To preserve life, even at great threat to ourselves – that is a learned response and a principled choice. That so many people share it is a testament to the goodness of the world, despite the evil that lurks within it.
Second, when something is important enough, we can overcome pain. We set limits every day on what we can do and what we can accomplish. But when life calls us to reach beyond the limits, we manage. That is true not just for runners finishing a marathon, but also those living their final days and willing themselves to see one more grandchild born, one more final reunion, before they pass.
There are now people in hospitals in Boston who are waking up to a life without legs. They will, I expect, compete in future years’ marathons in the wheelchair division even though they would never have considered competing as runners. This, too, is a uniquely human response — when something is important to us, we summon energy beyond what we once thought possible. Limits are often arbitrary; only love decides what we can do. If we love something enough, we will persevere.
Third, fate is an ugly and unjust way to construct the universe. Those killed and maimed were not chosen and they were not targeted. They just were present. There was no skill in avoiding the explosions and there was no moral choice involved. A world constructed around the vicissitudes of fate and fortune is fundamentally unjust — it gives no room for human agency and human choice.