Amy Poehler, in a video posted last week on her Smart Girls site, tried to answer an unanswerable question: a 16-year-old named Millie's query about how to deal with constant images of the Boston Marathon bombings and the aftermath.
"I wonder if we could soften our hearts and minds and our eyes, and I wonder if we could give our eyes a break," Poehler said.
Poehler's raw, from-the-heart response capturing our collective sadness and feelings of helpless horror, proved the comedian a master of elegant understatement. Her video, along Neil Diamond's surprise performance of "Sweet Caroline" at Fenway Park Saturday, also showed that in times of crisis, gestures from celebrities sometimes actually matter.
Poehler, Diamond and a handful of other notables helped provide a modicum of comfort and unity during a week unprecedented, if not in the scope of carnage, then in the intensity of online and TV coverage consumed by a nation wearied by a recent series of tragedies, from Aurora to Hurricane Sandy to Newtown.
The late night hosts used their usual comic platforms to decry the bombings, while praising the strength of Bostonians – from Brookline, Mass. native Conan O'Brien ("Boston is my hometown. It's where I grew up and it's where my family lives”) to Stephen Colbert (“Boston was founded by the Pilgrims, a people so tough they had to buckle their goddamn hats on”). Yo-Yo Ma, who lives in Cambridge, Mass. – the bombing suspects’ last residence – achieved a more sublime eloquence in his cello performance at last week's interfaith memorial service attended by President Obama.
Many celebrities instantly take to Twitter these days to share sorrow and show support during tough times. But social media can be an imperfect forum to convey nuance and complex emotions.
In the wrong hands, short messages can strike off-key notes, as we saw with the unintentionally flip comments Justin Bieber left in the guestbook at the Anne Frank House museum – a flap that gripped Twitter until the first bomb detonated at 2:50 p.m. last Monday.
Bieber is 19, less than a quarter the age of Willie Nelson, who announced plans to turn his upcoming 80th birthday concert into a benefit for the victims of the West, Texas, fertilizer plant explosion – another national tragedy, and one that's been sadly overshadowed by the crime in Boston.
Nelson, a veteran of Farm Aid and other benefit concerts, knows the power of music to soothe and show solidarity amid hardship.
It’s a lesson learned by Diamond, whose 44-year-old pop confection and Boston Red Sox unofficial theme song quickly turned into a national rallying sing-a-long. “With a tragedy like this, there are no words, but if people can find healing in music, this is the reason I’ve been doing this for the last 50 years,” he told the Los Angeles Times Thursday. “It goes beyond what I ever imagined.”
“Sweet Caroline” is simple song, but simple songs can be the most effective. So can simple phrases. As Poehler put it at the end of her video: “Boston, I love you.”
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.