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The real meaning of 'Boston Strong'

Posted by Steve Silva, Boston.com Staff  March 17, 2014 08:51 AM

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The Boston Marathon is 5 weeks away. It is remarkable how quickly the last 11 months have passed. And how quickly April 15, and then April 21 will be upon us.

Even though the past 10 months have passed seemingly on fast forward, it is odd how time can seem to tick by slowly when you are held hostage in the moment. A minute, an hour, even a day can take eternity to pass when you are tied to the actual challenge of coping with trauma, stress, and sadness.

I remember going to Boylston Street a couple days after the bombings and taking in the scene. The makeshift memorial was starting to take shape, scores of investigators were combing every square inch of the area, hundreds upon hundreds of people solemnly and reverently made their way up to the riot fencing to see the aftermath for themselves. There was an eerie silence that blanketed the Back Bay as people were stuck in the moment, trying to understand how everything could have happened, how to cope with the damage.

Of the many images that haunt me is what I encountered on Boylston Street two days after the bombings - scores of abandoned strollers strewn about, trapped in time, littering the crime scene, unclaimed and empty. I picture frantic mothers fighting the sea of chaos and people, grabbing their babies, trying to get somewhere safe.

Emotions continue to catch me off guard. Sometimes Iíll be in the middle of a conversation and find myself fighting back tears because something triggered a feeling from that day Ė I feel my voice get heavy and thick as I try not to betray the sudden sadness that surges. Iíve been out for a run, lost in the rhythm of my steps and suddenly realized that I was crying. Moments like this make me feel weak and embarrassed.

One thing I appreciate about running and working out is that you can measure your progress and improvement. Weights and machines are clearly calibrated and labeled to tell you how much you can lift, push, or pull. Running watches can tell you your pace, distance, calorie burn, heart rate, and even your oxygen efficiency. I value being able to measure how much faster, how much stronger, how much I am improving. Itís much more difficult to do that with emotions. Garmin doesn't make a Forerunner that measures emotional and mental improvements. If they did, I would buy it.

Boston Strong. Itís a hashtag. Itís on shirts, stickers, magnets, hats, bracelets, necklaces, cookies Ė anything you can imagine. But what does it mean?

In the immediate aftermath of the bombings, Boston Strong was a mantra for the city. If we repeated it, vocalized it, tweeted and hashtagged it enough, it would actually give us strength to get through the tragedy. After the initial shock of the trauma, Boston Strong became an anthem, a badge that the City of Boston could wear to show solidarity in the strength of our community. For the world around us, it became a way that they could identify the heroic actions of first responders and the brave rehabilitation of survivors.

Rarely in the past 11 months have I felt Boston Strong. If anything, I find that Iím in awe of the strength others continue to show and feel personally deficient, unable to live up to their example. Weak.

I measure my emotional improvement in ways that most therapists or psychologists would probably frown upon. How many times did I cry today? How many times did I almost cry today? Have I been mostly sad, partly sad, or only a little bit sad today?

Is strength the ability to stifle sobs and control your emotions? Is strength putting on a brave face in times of stress? Is strength being graceful, calm? Is strength the physical capability of being able to handle trauma and injury?

What is Boston Strong? What is Strength? I look at all the individual moments, hours, and days when I have struggled with the idea of how my reactions and coping mechanisms fit in with the definition of Boston Strong. It canít be a show of strength to stifle or lock away sadness. It has to be healthy to connect with emotions and understand the tragedy that two bombs can inflict. Strength canít mean being in control of emotions like an automaton, rather understanding that life Ė especially in the wake of tragedy Ė is an unpredictable emotional journey that demands much of our focus and energy. Strength is not the forcing the body to endure injury or trauma, rather understanding the damage inflicted and how we need to heal.

I deal with the days that are more difficult the same way I deal with the days that are easy Ė I get through them. Some of those days seem longer Ė especially when your To Do list is impossibly long and all you want to do is cry. Some of those days breeze by without a hitch. The commonality is that they all start to melt together, no longer a series of individual moments, but a picture that describes a journey from point A to point B. The moments that we feel stuck in begin to fade away into a larger tapestry Ė each stitch of experience creating a picture, a story.

As April 15th and April 21st rapidly approach, the picture of my journey is becoming more defined. I value moments of sadness because they show that I am receptive to emotion. I appreciate the tears and sorrow because they show that I am sensitive to a community that is continuing to heal.

Boston Strong doesn't mean that we face trauma with a stone face, or lock away tears, so we donít appear weak. Boston Strong is about how we get from point A to point B Ė the ups and downs, the despair and the hope, and the story it tells as we toe the start line together in Hopkinton and cross the finish line on Boylston Street. The pain, tears, stress, sorrow, hope and inspiration are a burden shared by a community - that is how we are able to cope as individuals. That is Boston Strong.

Dan Soleau is Brand Development Manager at Marathon Sports. Heíll provide weekly training tips for those preparing for the Boston Marathon. Dan has completed 6 marathons and an Ironman. He is a mentor for the One Fundís Boston Marathon team, coach for the Spaulding Rehabilitation Boston Marathon team, and will be running the 2014 Boston Marathon. Follow him on Twitter at @dansoleau or follow Marathon Sports at @marathon_sports

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Look for updates, news, analysis and commentary from the following.
  • Steve Silva, Boston.com senior producer, two-time Boston Marathon sub-four hour runner.
  • Ty Velde is a 16-time Boston qualifier who's completed 12 consecutive Boston Marathons and 25 marathons overall. Ty is now training for his 13th Boston run and will provide training tips for those who train solo and outside, no matter what temperature it is.
  • Rich 'Shifter' Horgan is a 19-time Dana-Farber Marathon Challenge team member who runs in honor of his father, who died of colon cancer. He will provide updates on local running events with a focus on the charitable organizations that provide Boston Marathon entries for their organization's fund raising purposes

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