Normally on the day of the marathon, he is perched on the sidelines close to Boston College and Heartbreak Hill. This Monday he was driving back from the Cape, to my great relief. But in 1980, he wrote an op-ed piece on the Marathon for the Boston Globe. I have the article as a poster mounted on my office wall. Its words ring with solidarity and meaning even 33 years later.
Almost in front of where I was standing to watch this year's Marathon, a young black runner suddenly came to a halt, crippled by the leg cramps he likely had been fighting for miles. The crowd on Hereford Street did what thousands had done for others between Boston and Hopkinton. They began calling encouragement. “Come on, you're almost there! You can do it!" Almost as quickly a middle-aged white man jogging behind the runner stopped, put his arm around the young man’s waist and urged him forward. Shoulder to shoulder the two men started off again. The crowd on the sidewalk THUNDERED its approval. Somewhere inside of me a dam of reserve broke and I found myself clapping and shouting wildly – and crying unabashedly.
So this was the Marathon: in truth a metaphor for the meaning of this "city built on a hill". The Marathon is a parable we enact yearly that tells us what it takes to live together in a democracy: individuality and corporateness; solitude and communion. On the one hand, the Marathon celebrates the power of personal decision and sheer endurance. Yet at the same time, that individual's striving requires the supports and confirmation of the community. It requires a people who will affirm that what counts is not success, measured by who makes it in first, but fidelity to a vision of excellence uniquely personal.
Another Bostonian, William James, once observed that every person at some level long still lead "the strenuous life," a life that engages passionately the heart, the will and the imagination. In many respects, the Marathon yearly displays the truth of that observation. It illustrates that the strenuous life is not the same thing as the competitive life, a life that divides the world into winners and losers, have and have-nots. As long as the Boston Marathon remains the race in which everyone who runs it is a winner, it will also be that annual occasion that reminds us of what it is that is worth striving for – the creation of the city and the world in which we can take inspiration from cheering on the enduring and prevailing of all our brothers and sisters without exception.
What we have seen since the explosions is an incredible outpouring of compassion, selfless service, and concern. We see a networked community that draws together in solidarity for the victims, their families, and all those who participated in this 117-year-old event. As a nation, I read and watch my fellow citizens become determined not to retreat in fear but to move forward in hope. The Boston community is a very tightly knit interwoven family with networks that stretch from business to college to churches to synagogues and mosques. John has kept me apprised of what is being reported in the Boston Globe and what he hears from colleagues. In his last email, John sent me both pictures and columns from the local paper. It was only then that I realized the poignancy of the signature line John uses in all of his letters: "Live in fragments no longer ....only connect!" E.M. Forster The pictures that I see are people in fragments, bodies in fragments, lives in fragments. But what I also see are the incredible connections of people who have nothing in common other than their humanity. Perhaps out of this senseless act of violence, we will be reminded of that which joins together. After all, the race that matters most is the human race.