When Gavin’s grandparents came to pick him up from preschool at the Goddard School in Reading, Mass., on the day of the Boston Marathon bombing, they told his teachers that they feared something was wrong with Gavin’s dad, Marc Fucarile. They could not reach him via phone, and they did not know where he was. Soon enough, Sarah Blumenstick Girrell, owner/leader of the school, heard that Fucarile had been hurt and that he was likely going to lose a leg. What did she do?
Most of us live in clusters — in concentric circles of connections: the inner circle of close ties, the middle circle of weaker ties, and the circle of people we connect with more remotely, through some thread of shared identity. New York Times business writer Charles Duhigg, in The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Business, uses this schema to describe how connections are solidified when habits move through these circles of connection.
The inner circle consists of “friendship and strong ties between close acquaintances” — people who are mutually invested in each other’s wellbeing. When a tragedy hits, the people in our inner circle are activated, and the closer we are to the tragedy, the more intense our reactions are likely to be (although individuals will react differently based on their personal history).
Girrell had a close connection with Fucarile, who had always been a devoted volunteer for the school. She sent a note out to the school’s families to tell them that a parent had been injured. As soon as the message was received, parents — even those who did not know Fucarile — stopped by her office to ask how to help. The school-based community rallied around the family. The school’s parents engaged others in their neighborhoods and the circle of support grew.
Duhigg describes community as “the weak ties that hold neighborhoods and clans together.” We participate and live in many kinds of communities — geographic, religious, school-based, professional, values-based, and hobbyist, for example — and these communities are made up of micro-communities. When an influential leader in a community sets a standard, peer pressure activates weak ties via the establishment of communal expectations. “If you ignore the social obligations of your neighborhood … you risk losing your social standing. You endanger your access to many of the social benefits that come from joining.” Duhigg notes, “[W]hen the strong ties of friendship and the weak ties of peer pressure merge, they create incredible momentum.” As the news spread, new communities with weak ties to Girrell and Fucarile were mobilized.
Beyond our immediate communities, we connect to a larger group — a profession, a city, a country, or a religious group. In the case of Fucarile, who was a professional roofer from Stoneham, his local community, along with the roofers union, mobilized their own campaigns for him, his family, and other local victims. The ties of friendship and the wave of peer pressure to be helpful, along with the citywide Boston group identity that was activated, created a powerful surge toward spontaneous acts of solidarity and support after the Boston tragedy.
Do public gestures of empathy matter? Were the people of Boston helped in their recovery because of the large and small acts of kindness and efforts of communalism? Does the communitarian response help the victims, witnesses, or spectators? When a tragedy is highly unusual and traumatic, it upends our feeling of safety and jolts us out of our day-to-day concerns; taking action helps us to combat our feelings of helplessness. Collaborative action also helps us to feel comfortedby the spontaneous sense of belonging to a larger, newer, caring community.
Does the sense of cohesion last or is it momentary? What happens as the city moves on from the acute state of tragedy? As we learned after 9/11, the shelf life of this emotional connectedness is brief. Organizations like Strength to Strength (stosglobal.org) assist victims of terror when the spontaneous sense of community has passed. Although many of the spectators to the Boston bombing have healed and resumed their day-to-day lives, the victims of terror and their families continue to deal with the long-term effects of the trauma. Fucarile still has shrapnel in his body, and he is not sure he will keep his other leg. What is our obligation to victims beyond the initial empathic period?
Individuals who assisted with trauma recovery, even though they had weak ties to victims, may have been changed by the experience of helping. According to Duhigg, for memories and commitments to endure throughout a community over the long term, they need to become new social habits or a new identity. As Jews, we have memorialized our collective tragedies and created habits in order to rekindle the emotions of vulnerability and empathy. We have codified the habits of caring through mitzvot such as bikkur cholim (visiting the sick). And we have codified the process of communal memorial and healing through public ceremonies and prayer-filled days such as Yom HaShoah and Tisha B’Av. Living in a kehillat chesed, a caring community, means enacting the habits of caring as an ongoing part of our lives when we are moved or because we are obligated.