Un-knowing at the Boston Marathon

BostonMarathonFinishLine - Un-knowing at the Boston Marathon
Just one year ago, a very peaceful finish line scene.

Ernesto Spinelli (1997) describes un-knowing, with the hyphenation, “in order to distinguish the term from its more common meaning as that of which we remain unfamiliar” (p. 9). The concept, he says,

Refers to that attempt to remain as open as possible to whatever presents itself to our relational experience. As such, it expresses the attempt to treat the seemingly familiar, or that of which we are either aware or informed, as novel, unfixed in meaning, accessible to previously unexamined possibilities. (p. 9)

Un-knowing is the term that keeps resonating for me as I, like many people across the country and particularly on the east coast, watch the coverage of the tragic bombing at the Boston Marathon.

As I have written about in previous blogs, the media coverage of these events always fascinates me. Especially with the advent of the 24-hour cable news and internet news cycle, television and the internet provide us with a constant barrage of repetitive images, but more importantly, hours of speculation.

Who did this? Why did they do this? How many have actually been hurt? How many have died or will die shortly as a result of injuries sustained? What happened?

I was particularly struck by President Barack Obama’s first press briefing following the event. He was very careful to not use the word “terrorism,” a word that has come to be so loaded that a single use can trigger an onslaught of short-term and long-term consequences, from panic to politics. But he also stressed the consequences awaiting the perpetrators upon their discovery, implying that there were indeed perpetrators—i.e., that this was intentional.

Someone out there knows the answers to all our questions.

But for now, we have to come face-to-face with uncertainty, and with un-knowing. As yet, we have so few facts—the bombing took place four hours into marathon, so we know the time. We know where two explosions happened, but there are conflicting reports as to how many other device were there. We know that some have already died, but we don’t know the full extent of the casualties.

Scarier still is that we do not know who did this and why… and why the government authorities’ whose jobs it is to track this kind of “chatter,” stated there was “no credible threat” beforehand.

No warning.

In an instant, lives are irrevocably changed. Spinelli (1997) says:

In such moments, we are likely to confront the unavoidable insecurities of our own lives and then, shuddering at the thought, make vows to reassess our life’s direction or priorities, or, just as likely, seek to find the means to suppress such forbidding reflections. (p. 185)

So, many of us, like me, watch television and read internet news, trying to find the nugget of a truth amongst all the speculation. A nugget of certainty. An anchor.

Maybe, however, this is a time to sit in the un-knowing, no matter how uncomfortable it is. What can we really do by watching news reports? What will knowing more facts about this most recent tragedy—in a sea of recent tragedies, become too numerous to count—really do for us?

What they will do is create a comfortable distance for us. They will allow us to breathe a little easier that some “they” out there perpetrated this. Another case of them against us. Now we will be able to easily categorize it into our world order. Had President Obama used the word “terrorism,” that would have been part of the response. We now have experience with terrorism—we often consider ourselves veterans, almost, of terrorist threats. New York City has increased bag checks on the subway in response to the marathon bombing. People interviewed on the local news after seeing this increased security talked about how they understood the necessity—it was one of the facts of living in this 21st century world.

But if we stayed in a place of un-knowing, putting aside for the time our previous experiences with bombings and terror and looking for someone to blame, how would that feel? This is where the real learning happens—where the juicy stuff emerges—in life, as well as therapy.

Inevitably, more “facts” will be uncovered in the days and weeks to come, maybe even with motivations and suspects and arrests. But for now, all we can do is live in this state of uncertainty. Will we reassess our priorities, in that instant, immediate way we often do after tragedies only to see them slowly give way to habits in the same way New Year’s resolutions fall by the wayside? Or will we suppress our feelings?

Or is there a third alternative? To be with the feelings of uncertainty, to un-know what we think we know, in order to truly learn?


Spinelli, E. (1997) Tales of un-knowing: Therapeutic encounters from an existential perspective. London, UK: Duckworth.

— Sarah Kass

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