Into the Tragic Gap

Flowers left in the waiting room of the Bologna Central Station in August 2012. , Photo: Elitre, [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Finding inner peace requires us to hold perhaps the most subtle and yet most difficult tension of all: the tension between reality and possibility. I have come to think of this as “standing in the tragic gap,” the gap between our knowledge of what is and our knowledge of what might be. If we find ourselves unable to stand in that place, we will be pulled to one side or the other, toward the paralyzing cynicism that too much "reality" can breed or toward the wistful and irrelevant idealism that is bred by too much "possibility.” —Parker Palmer

On the morning of August 2, 1980, a few moments after I stepped out of the Bologna Central train station in Italy, it blew up behind me. At first, I thought the shaking was an earthquake, but when I turned around, a cloud of dust and debris was rising from the station. People began running. An older woman in a yellow dress shouted, “una bomba, una bomba.” 

I was 23, backpacking through Europe and visiting friends, like Gianfederico, who was studying at the University of Bologna. A few days before, he had seen me off to Genoa, with an open invitation to return. After the bombing, I went to his apartment, hoping to find him home. When he wasn’t, I returned to the city center in a state of shock, sat at an outdoor café sipping a drink and listening to the sound of sirens echoing through the streets.

At the time, the bombing was considered the worst terrorist attack in Western Europe since World War II, killing 85 people and wounding more than 200. It seems both repetitive and demoralizing to state the obvious; that in the 36 years since, terror attacks have killed thousands more and that people living in conflict zones are suffering violence on a regular basis. There is no distancing oneself from it. It is present in daily life.

I eventually caught up with Gianfederico. The next night we attended a vigil in Bologna’s Piazza Maggiore. When I try to remember what it was like that night, images of vigils for recent shootings and bombings mix and merge into a sea of candlelit faces, tears, flowers, and waves of grief.

Word of a threat of another bombing cut my stay in Italy short. Wary, I left to visit friends in Munich. When I arrived in Germany, I remember someone saying that it wasn’t surprising the bombing had happened in Italy. That fall, there was a terror attack during the Oktoberfest celebrations in Munich.

It’s tempting and, perhaps natural, to believe violence and terrorism requires a belief, hatred, or rage we don’t possess, that it resides outside of us. Yet, daily we’re reminded that violence is within and around us to one degree or another. Alongside the outpouring of grief, love, and concern expressed on social media after terror attacks, there is also a tendency to simplify events, rush to judgment, and vilify wide swaths of people.

I struggle with how to condemn violent acts without committing one myself. I’m talking about violence that expresses itself in angry thoughts or words, because these, too, contribute to an atmosphere of intolerance and unrest. It is difficult not to respond to violence and hatred with anger and a wish for revenge. In fact, we’re awash in rage and vengeful rhetoric. The “you’re either with us or against us” narrative seems to be playing on a continuous loop, ignoring a complicated reality, and encouraging a dangerous mindset.  

As I sat at that Italian café on a hot August afternoon, I shared in the shock and grief of those in Bologna. The immediate response was happening around me as ambulances from surrounding towns arrived to take those who were injured to hospitals. Police began investigating. Vigils and protests were organized. Many grieved and worried for loved ones.

In the years since, I’ve noticed how we get stuck in our initial responses to tragic events. After the horror, the anger, the mourning, what then? After searching for the perpetrators, sometimes finding them, seeking justice, what then? It seems we are playing a tragic game of whack-a-mole—pounding down perpetrators keeps us in a heightened state of fight or flight and a constant battle.

Looking at the underlying causes and the long term solutions takes patience, takes “standing in the tragic gap” where we feel our anger and pain while still imagining a better world, and probably most difficult of all, acknowledging how we may wittingly or unwittingly play a role in this culture of violence.

For years I saw violence outside of myself, held it at arms length, while harboring or expressing anger for one perceived hurt, injustice, or another. Though I am by no means free from experiencing and expressing anger, I remind myself over and over to sit with it, to sit with the accompanying grief and confusion.

Remembering that day in Bologna reminds me that there’s a hair thin margin between living and dying, between my life and the lives of those who died or were injured on August 2, 1980, in terror attacks, wars, and violence before and since then. Until we can “stand in the tragic gap”; allow ourselves and each other to forego retaliatory rhetoric and actions; seek a better, more complicated understanding of situations, people, and causes of violent acts and how best to address them; we will remain stuck in a grievous loop of terror.

Roselle Kovitz, a member of Fetzer’s social media team, is a writer and communication consultant who lives in Seattle.