There was no right answer in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy. Instead organizers of the New York City Marathon were faced with a classic damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t proposition.
What a conundrum for New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg and NYRR president Mary Wittenberg after Superstorm Sandy whipsawed into the eastern seaboard this past Monday just six days before the 42nd ING New York City Marathon was scheduled to run through New York’s five boroughs.
After short, but (what I assume to be) careful consideration, the mayor decided on Thursday that the marathon should go forward. His rationale centered on both the economic power of the event (last year it generated $340 million in economic impact), and the metaphoric resilience it would represent to his stricken city. He bolstered his decision by explaining how electrical power should be returned to most of the city by this weekend, and, given that the race is held on Sunday, a light traffic day, there would be less call for city police on the streets to monitor the marathon’s safety.
For her part Wittenberg explained how the marathon course, itself, had been spared by the savage storm, how NYRR would use private security and transportation to release the strain on city services which would be needed for storm relief, and announced the institution of a marathon Race to Recovery Fund with an initial contribution by the NYRR, the Rudin Family, and sponsor ING to the tune of $2.6 million.
Nevertheless, the tide of criticism has been mounting steadily, coming not just from affected citizens of the five boroughs – especially from hard-hit Staten Island, staging ground for the marathon start – but from runners alike. A typical response went like this: “now is not the time to divert resources away from critical recovery efforts, close more roads just so some people can run a race, and invite thousands of people into a city that is only partially functioning with electricity, mass transit, and other basic utilities impaired.”
This is the fine line that Bloomberg and Wittenberg had to tread.
The marathon is much more than a simple athletic competition or even an economic generator. Much more than a football or basketball game, the marathon is an affirmation of life, a metaphor for overcoming life’s challenges. And it is in that role that Sunday’s marathon presents itself as a living example of the resilience of the city and its people. But is six days enough time between Sandy and Sunday even for such a powerful metaphor to take hold, much less resonate? Do people really need a metaphor when they are living through hell?
When the marathon arrived following the tragedy of 9/11, it came seven weeks after the towers had fallen. Though horrific, the damage was focused, so the marathon wasn’t competing for any city services or agencies. On that occasion the NYC Marathon proved to be the perfect metaphorical grief counselor. Today, even if it could be proven with mathematical certainty that city services and personnel would not be sacrificed in storm relief for marathon duty, it almost doesn’t seem to matter. The wounds are still too fresh, our reptilian brain not quite finished processing our reactions or understanding of what has just been experienced.
Grief and despair are not rational things, they do not give way so easily to facts, and the stages of grief cannot be hurried or masked. The marathon is life-affirming, yes, but first we must acknowledge and embrace our grief.
As the Kübler-Ross model, commonly known as The Five Stages of Grief, suggests, the mind is resilient, but requires process. Introduced by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in 1969 in her book On Death and Dying, Ms. Kübler-Ross noted that the stages – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance – were not meant to be either comprehensive or chronological, but would be as unique as the person experiencing them.
In that regard, neither denial nor bargaining seem to be in play in this tragedy. What’s to deny beyond our own complicity? And who would we bargain with, Mother Nature? But anger sure is here, and depression in the face of such devastation and loss was immediate and probably of long duration. And as the current debate suggests, acceptance is by no means at hand.
Reason is a powerfully unique human tool, but it does not trump emotion. We have seen signs of that in our current presidential race, and are witnessing it again in the aftermath of Sandy. When we are driven by fear for survival, whether in our body or in our circumstance, our reptilian brain rules. The mammalian brain only kicks in to help us live well with others in a civilized fashion.
Five days out from Sandy much of the environment around the New York metro area no longer resembles civilization, but instead seems more conducive to reptilian rather than mammalian life. Mayor Bloomberg and Ms. Wittenberg can only hope that the outcome generated by their rationally-derived decision to go forward with the marathon will prove to have been a visionary aid rather than a well-intentioned hindrance to the people who, with emotions still raw, find themselves still caught in the hold of Sandy’s turbulent, twisted aftermath.