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Boston bombings and the hierarchy of suffering

When I was an undergraduate, some of my peers engaged in a sport that can only be described as competitive under-sleeping. “I only slept five hours last night,” one would say. “Oh! You must be so well-rested. I slept for two hours.” “One hour and twenty minutes!” “I slept negative 17 minutes last night.” Everything was an arms race: Who studied the most and who studied the least? Who slept the most and the least? How long could one go without food or a bathroom break? Depending on whom you asked, the extremes of these spectrums would be points of pride.

Boston became the closest point I would recognize as home on a United States map. Shortly after the completion of my studies, I left the US to work in conflict and post-conflict areas with women affected by war. Five years after that first graduation, I have returned to Boston to make it a home anew — to make it a site of learning, growth, and community.

I am no stranger to violence. I have witnessed it unfold, heard it at a distance in the night, documented its aftermath. I have studied its multiple faces. One of the lessons I have learned through this work and study has been that I cannot be desensitized to violence, suffering, injustice, or atrocities. It is irrelevant that the Boston bombings were not the first explosion at a place I called home; it is further irrelevant that I allegedly “know what to do and how to be in a crisis.”

The competitive arms race of absurdity that I experienced as a college student has a way of resurfacing among some practitioners in conflict zones. “Oh, you got scared of the gunfire outside our compound? Haha, I guess I just got used to it and didn’t even hear it.” As I wrote in September, we often confuse emotional responses and vulnerability with being an amateur, criminally lacking thick skin. I am neither interested in the thick skin, nor in the competition of who has the most scars, who has the harshest memories, who has survived more acts of violence.

A strange version of this ‘hierarchy of suffering’ has surfaced in response to the Boston bombings. Some friends and colleagues have pointed out that hundreds of people die in conflicts worldwide every day and “only 4 died in Boston and we’ve been hearing about it all week.” Indeed, they are right: Nearly 200 people died in a Boko Haram attack in Nigeria this weekend; nearly 200 people died because of the earthquake in Sichuan, China. Over 70,000 have died in the Syrian civil war so far. The scale of human suffering, natural disaster, and man-made injustice and violence is unimaginably large — and, I argue, so should be our compassion.

There are conflicts, disasters, and injustices in this world that are dramatically underreported, under-examined, or misunderstood — and, in ways that fuel my faith in humanity, I spend my days surrounded by people committed to redressing this. Yet, the existence of a tragedy that has resulted in more deaths than the one that occupies our minds presently does not mean that our heartache is misplaced. Neither “competitive grief” nor “competitive compassion” are sports I ever wish to play.

Measuring atrocities, disasters, or other tragedies by the number of deaths may provide us with a quantitative measure — but that, too, is an incomplete story. What about the victims of sexual violence in Syria whose experiences are not reflected in the 70,000 deaths? What about the underreported instances of sexual violence? What about those who have been forcibly disappeared worldwide?

What about all the other kinds of suffering and pain that are not captured in the numbers that we choose each time? Four people died as a result of the Boston bombings and manhunt for the suspects. How many amputees? How many injured? How many emotionally traumatized? What about the impact of violence on those who were not directly and physically affected by it, but whose sense of identity, community, or daily life has been disrupted?

You could argue that even by the widest possible count of ‘victimhood,’ the events in Boston this week still do not compare to _______. You may well be right. But I argue that the hierarchy of suffering robs all human stories of their dignity. We each grieve for different losses, in scale and in kind. Our hearts are large enough to extend compassion to Syria and Sichuan, Boston and Bamako. There is not a fixed pie of empathy of which we are capable; there is no risk of running out or distributing it unfairly.

There is, therefore, no place for judgment or competition in grief and in the expression of compassion. An expression of pain for Boston does not need to be one of ignorance for the pain of Elsewhere. Boston’s pain is not superior to or greater than the suffering of any other community. It is also not lesser than it. To some, it is more surprising, more shocking, less expected, or better covered in the media — and one could make a case for any of these adjectives. But this does not mean that compassion is not warranted for it, or that individuals whose hearts are centered on Boston do not care for injustices outside a bubble that was violently burst. I wish not for the kind of grief, compassion, and empathy that one has to defend or surround with caveats.

This week, my heart aches for my Boston home.
It also called back memories of Jerusalem, and of Gaza, and riding into Aleppo in a car that sat atop a tow-truck bed, and bars in Uganda before that bombing, and muffins in Sudan, and cafes in Colombia before that other bombing, and late-night walks through Guatemala on the night before someone placed a bunch of decapitated human heads outside public spaces as a signal to the rest of us.
I have no memories of China, or of Afghanistan, or Nigeria, or Haiti, or Burma, for I have never been there — but I extend empathy to those seeking to recover from injustice, violence, natural disasters, or other suffering.
And, still, this week, my heart aches for Boston, knowing that empathy can be partial and compassion is anchored in our memories — but also knowing that empathy and compassion can be infinite if we will  them to be.

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