Like everyone else, I was riveted to the TV Friday night watching the coverage of the manhunt, which came to its whimpering close when the 19-year-old Boston marathon bombing suspect, Dzhokhar A. Tsarnaev, was taken into custody from a boat where he’d been hiding.
Having worked in and lived near Watertown, MA, for years as a magazine editor for the now-defunct Body+Soul magazine, it was bizarro world to watch what appeared to be a Hollywood action film unfold in real time on the streets I’d driven through every day. But what I’ve never seen is what I saw Friday night—Mt. Auburn (a main thoroughfare there) erupting in a carnival-like atmosphere, equal parts relief, elation, and gratitude. Residents lined the streets, cheering the cops and fire trucks and armored cars as they filed out of the city.
One reporter asked a Watertown resident in a red hooded sweatshirt how she felt. She looked exactly like someone you’d run into in Watertown—a salt-of-the-earth woman, friendly and warm in a tough, husky kind of way. She smiled with her big blue eyes and said, “I…I’m so excited I don’t know what to do with myself. I’ve been stuck inside all day watching the news, and now I’m here and—I don’t want to leave! There’s just this feeling of unity, you know?” Then she turned to cheer at the armored police cars parading out of the town.
That moment—that sheer joy in her face, her voice—illustrates beautifully the key to resilience, as taught to me by psychologist and stress expert Andrew Shatté, PhD., one of the founders of meQuilibrium (which is just a few blocks away from Watertown center, where it all went down). Your ability to bounce back, recover, and thrive even in the face of unspeakable tragedy and danger, says Shatté, comes from your sense of connection to other people, to your community, to the world. And it’s the very reason that woman did not want to leave.
It’s the same reason my sisters, both an hour or so outside of Boston, were calling and texting me relentlessly Friday morning, even though I live in Manhattan and far from the dramatic scene. They needed to connect with me—and were fierce about it, yelling at me via text when I was slow to pick up (admittedly, I was still in bed). “We need to be able to reach you. Always. Now get up and turn on the TV,” my sister wrote.
Why & How to Build Resilience
And while most days hardly see this scale of drama and fear, we all live with chronic stress, which, even without any immediate threat of bodily harm, takes its toll. But when you wall yourself off from others, and stay holed up in your stress-addled brain, you actually undermine your ability to bounce back.
The solution? Fight the urge to hunker down—and open up. Fear tends to shrink us, says Shatté—so to counter that fear you must do the opposite: Expand. This is what he’s witnessed the most resilient people do, and he believes it’s how they keep bouncing back where others become overwhelmed and deflated. The more connected you feel to the people, community, and world around you, the less alone you feel. Or as we say, the bigger your boat, the less likely you’ll capsize.
It’s this ability to stay connected, to stand by each other, that has kept the people of Boston strong during one of the worst weeks in the city’s storied history. But they’re not the only ones who have the ability to shore up resilience. You do. I do. It’s a muscle you have to use, and you strengthen it by reaching out to loved ones and strangers alike. We need to do it for each other, over and over. To come out of our houses, remind each other that we’re there, in all of this, together.