Resilience is a marathon

We learn from each tragedy, and then from the next one

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We oughtn't pray for what we've never known

Unbroken peace

Unmixed blessing


Better to pray for ...

The will to see and touch

The power to do good and make new.

-- Rabbi Stanley F. Chyet

In 2000, Stuart Manley, a bookseller from Northumberland, England, was rummaging through materials that had been shipped to his store. There was nothing remarkable except for a quirky poster with an image of the British Crown and the words "Keep Calm and Carry On."

Mr. Manley had never heard the phrase, but found it sufficiently entertaining to display it on the walls of his store. He later learned that the poster came from a World War II propaganda campaign designed to bolster public spirits while families were separated, with men off at war and children off to safer locations in the countryside. A million copies were printed but never distributed.

Some local residents took notice of the poster on Mr. Manley's wall, which led to a small story in a British magazine. It soon went national and became a timeless icon of British resilience and the capacity to bounce back with a stiff upper lip and a good cup of tea.

The story of Mr. Manley's poster reminds us that the desire to persevere -- against an existential threat, a lone criminal or something in between -- isn't created by a slogan. "Keep Calm and Carry On" never guided anyone's response in World War II. The posters weren't displayed. And yet the British kept calm and carried on.

There has been a focus on resiliency in Boston these last few days, but less on what it actually means. True resilience is a function of competence, not psychology, and the ability to learn from the past. Years of planning went into the response to Monday's Boston Marathon bombings, bolstering the city's capacity to bounce back. Immediately after the bombings, runners who could see the finish line were diverted, sparing Boylston Street from more confused crowds and greater panic. That quick move helped to preserve a massive crime scene. Then authorities immediately put out a request for home video or any other source of clues.

Those actions were the product of a constant process of learning from horrors in the past. The lessons learned from the terrorist attacks on 9/11 prompted the quick reactions of first responders. The skills that soldiers mastered in Iraq and Afghanistan saved lives and limbs at the bomb site. The plea for public participation came from a government that has learned that insularity can be counterproductive.

A resilient society is one that will absorb what it can from this week and emerge wiser, if wounded. Many Bostonians have lost so much. And in their honor we should not simply wish for a return to the relative peace of April 14. We should embrace the lessons of this week, regroup and adapt, setting a new starting point for whatever might happen to us. And that whole process will repeat itself, if it must.

Resiliency is not a sprint. It is a marathon.


Juliette Kayyem is a columnist for the Boston Globe and a former assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.


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