Last week, the federal courts sentenced young Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to death for his crimes in the Boston Marathon bombing. I don’t talk politics much here, but I will say on the record: I was hoping against hope that it would be life without parole. I hoped – and even believed – that we were better than this now. That we would give this young man – hell, this boy – a chance to grow up, to reflect, to be alone with his thoughts and out of the public eye for years – and perhaps, to find redemption.
But we’re not so good at that, as a species. Even though Martin Richard’s family, who had the ultimate loss in this tragedy in the death of their young son, said that they did not want the death penalty. Apparently, our sense of revenge was more important than responding to that family’s plea to not take another child away from this world.
I read an article by Parker J. Palmer a few days before the verdict, in the amazing On Being blog. Entitled Heartbreak, Violence, and Hope for New Life, it is built around the repeated refrain, “Violence is what happens when we don’t know what else to do with our suffering.”
It tracks the idea that as individuals, and indeed, as a nation, we often don’t know what to do with our suffering, and so lashing out feels like the only option. It happens with the cycle of abuse, when a child who was beaten up grows up to beat up her own kids. It happens when we turn violence against ourselves or others in response to grief and pain. As Palmer writes, “We turn to noise and frenzy, nonstop work, or substance abuse as anesthetics that only deepen our suffering. Sometimes we visit violence upon others, as if causing them pain would mitigate our own. Racism, sexism, homophobia, and contempt for the poor are among the cruel outcomes of this demented strategy.”
We do it as a nation, as when after the few weeks of solidarity and heartbreak that followed 9/11, we went to endless war.
And we did it this week, when we decided that our response to the suffering we experienced after the Marathon bombing should be the death – irrevocable and state-executed – of a a young man who could yet, with time, be healed.
Suffering breaks our hearts — but there are two quite different ways for the heart to break. There’s the brittle heart that breaks apart into a thousand shards, a heart that takes us down as it explodes and is sometimes thrown like a grenade at the source of its pain. Then there’s the supple heart, the one that breaks open, not apart, growing into greater capacity for the many forms of love. Only the supple heart can hold suffering in a way that opens to new life.
I hope that if you are reading this, if you are suffering today, if your heart is breaking, that it is able to make room, to expand, to be supple and strong.