18 April 2007

Grief and Numbness

People on Plans this week were questioning themselves for feeling numb about the V-Tech shooting, or chastising themselves about caring so much about V-Tech when hundreds of innocents have died in Iraq and Darfur in the last month alone. Grinnellians were dealt a double blow on April 16, when the body of a student who had been missing since September was found in a country club swimming pool a few blocks from campus, where he'd drowned himself.

Watching tragedies from afar brings up feelings of guilt and -- in cases like V-Tech, where the media script for school shootings was written years ago -- complicity, that we live in and stand witness to a culture that would allow such a tragedy to happen, and then feed on it for weeks afterward.

How can we not feel angry? How can we not feel numb?

Empathy requires analogy for understanding. We draw comparisons to experiences we've had in our own lives to understand that which other people must endure. The closer the analogy, the deeper the empathy. Virgina cannot be discussed without mentioning Columbine; 9/11 was linked to the Oklahoma City bombings; Paul Shuman-Moore recalls stories of other friends lost, other students gone, other suicides. I've been thinking about Carl Grimm this week, thinking about how he sat across the aisle from me in one of my classes, about how I never really noticed him until he was gone. I remember now how I felt then, not quite to the fall break of my freshman year at Grinnell: freaked out and sad and scared and worried.... Just, as I imagine, as many of the kids at Virginia feel right now. Just as many of the kids at Grinnell feel right now. I'm thinking about Jonathan and Lenko and how the campus community reeled in the wake of their loss, how scary and sad and surreal that time was for all of us. And this is how I begin to understand what's happening in Blacksburg and Grinnell right now. My heart hurts for everyone in those communities because I've been there, I've been a scared, sad, angry, lost college student on a campus trying to deal with tragedy, violence, and loss. I know how it doesn't stop hurting, not entirely. I know that those kids will still be thinking about this week in five years, ten years. I know that the next time our national media is binging on the latest story of violence and terror and sorrow, the kids who are now living through the tragedies in Blacksburg and Grinnell will think back to this week and draw analogies to their own tragedies in order to move past the numbness and find empathy.

It's hard to empathize when you can't analogize. How many of us know what it's like to live through a war -- not the kind you see on Fox News, but the kind you see in the faces of your neighbors and family with every new loss? How many of us have had to lie silent on the floor of our house, waiting for the rain of bombing to stop? Not too many, I'd say, and so it's nearly impossible for us to understand that kind of tragedy. Without analogy, it's hard to feel.

Ours is a culture of binge-and-purge events: one week of everything we can learn about Virgina and then we'll be done. One week of Anna Nicole, one week of Katrina, one week of the Los Alamos fires, one week of Columbine, and then we're done, while the people directly involved are still in the middle of the sorrow and the loss, we'll turn our collective heads and hearts to the next big thing. It's not that we don't feel genuine emotion in the midst of this media-bombing: we all stood witness to the destruction of Katrina, of the Tsunamis, of the Amish school shooting, and we mourned. We stood witness for Iraq as well, in the beginning. Millions of people marched in protest, millions of people stayed glued to their TVs, weeping, as the United States dropped the first bombs on Baghdad in March of 2003. We cared -- maybe we still do. But we have to get on with the business of being alive, and life is comprised of the mundane.

And yes, we do develop a sort of numbness. We have to. It's not possible to live every single day in fear and anger and overwhelming sadness -- and still remember to pick up bread for sandwiches, and pay the phone bill, and write that thank you note to grandma. We have to compartmentalize, we have to be able to shut things down. We have to be able to turn off the endless loop of planes hitting the Twin Towers, walk out into the sunlight, and pet a puppy. We must, we must turn from the tragedy and walk back into our own lives, or we won't be alive at all.

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