Sunday, April 05, 2009

Have We Become Numb to Tragedy?

MSNBC seems to think so.

I think it's a simple matter of perception. Lost in all the news regularly reported and discussed is the simple fact that there are more people roaming the earth these days. With population increase come a statistically larger likelihood that there will be more people born with paranoid schizophrenia, more serial killers, more mentally unstable people who refuse to seek treatment, and more of everything else, really. When it comes down to a matter of proportion, we'll continue to see these maladies increase ever-so-slightly with time.

Once I talked to a firefighter about the nature and demands of his job. I asked him the question that many of us wonder: "How you deal with the tragedy you face on a daily basis?" His reply was, "If I internalized everything with which I deal regularly and took it home with me, I'd go totally nuts. You simply can't do it if you want to work this job." It was nothing personal, he added.

Factor in a hyperactive cable news network cycle and we get further inundated with similar stories. To an extent we are somewhat "numb" to tragedy, but under that criteria, my Depression-era Grandparents were, too. For example, my grandfather's Christmas presents every year were an apple and an orange. My Grandmother remembered even fifty years later how she spent all of D-Day weeping, having heard over the radio that the invasion was underway. She knew from frequent correspondence over the mails that two of her brothers were going to be among the first waves of soldiers to storm the beaches when the long-promised invasion would take place. Neither of them bothered to wring their hands about routine tragedy, instead they learned coping strategies as a survival skill. The implication in this story is that we are collectively growing hard, callous, robotic, inhuman, and insensitive to random acts of violence and I honestly think otherwise.

The adversity my grandparents faced made them more human, not less so. They learned the value of sacrifice, perseverance, courage, and unselfishness. With the problems they faced, they became more empathetic and more compassionate to their fellow person. It is a tempting belief that the tragedies and senseless crimes we experience will drown us and collectively drag us down into the mire, but this was an idea advanced by the Lost Generation and the early modernists. While it is true that World War I was a completely futile slaughter, it's a stretch to believe that the only things gleamed from the conflict were purely negative and soul-destroying. Nothing is that cut-and-dried or purely negative. I encourage us to take the time to find the good among the bad and not sell purely into a mentality that the final outcome of tragedy must always be awful and destructive.

1 comment:

alarob said...

One of the clich├ęs of network news coverage of "tragedy" (meaning any lawless violence) is the trope that "the community will never be the same." I think that's nonsense, at least most of the time, and pernicious nonsense because of the power it implies that violent actors have over others.

The movie "Fargo" seemed to me to be more psychologically truthful than most horror movies, because the protagonists witnessed some of the most horrific behavior imaginable, yet continued to live their lives as they always had. Evil is not as powerful as, say, Stephen King likes to pretend. Not unless we will it to be.