A few years ago, an out of breath friend called me with a story about how he was “just involved in a car accident”. The story, told mostly through forward-inching narration peppered with dramatic huffs of anxious relief, featured my friend riding steadily in the slow lane as his exit — whose location he wasn’t quite sure of but was certain — was coming up soon. In front of him was a pickup truck with a cargo attachment hooked to its ass and a driver who operated the vehicle in a way that would understandably infuriate anyone driving behind it: riding of the breaks, jagged start/stops, an uneasy wobble of the cargo attachment. My friend, having had about enough, shifted into the center lane, at which point the car previously behind him rammed into the aforementioned cargo attachment.
“I don’t understand. Did you miss your exit?” I asked.
But no. My friend simply saw this unfold and freaked out. You could imagine my own personal disappointment with this story since its billing promised a car accident involving my friend instead of the turn of good fortune that I perceived it to be. Not that I’m callous and want tragedy to befall people I care about, but since he was in front of me, clearly unharmed, relating this story, it was only natural that I begin to quietly anticipate and demand the discharge that the Chekhov’s gun of his “I was involved in a car accident” had promised. As it was, the proximity to which he was involved in a car accident was tenuous at best, yet my friend still carried on as if he had undergone some Phaedran tragedy.
Enter this week’s Boston Marathon bombing. The usual sentimental suspects that accompany such a violent, terror-tinged tragedy accompanied the unfolding of this story. There were sincere shows of support and camaraderie, vengeful bloodlusting, vengeful racist bloodlusting(this being a bombing particularly brought that sort of reactionary-bigot flavor that we’ve been missing with all of our school and movie theater shootings of late), and attempts by people tenuously affected by the whole thing to place themselves in closer proximity to it.
I recall this sort of thing taking place around 9/11, though Facebook barely existed at the time, so my examples of it are relegated mostly to my cerebrum. Pissing contests centered around who was affected more by the attacks came hard and fast: whose father worked in which adjacent building; who had lunch across the street hours earlier; whose dog was named “World Trade Center”, and so on. We seem to have this weird tendency to co-opt other people’s pain(Hip-hop group Naughty By Nature is considered by some to be an early pop-cultural progenitor of this mentality) and insinuate ourselves into it.
Coming back to my friend, sure, in its most existential sense he was mere seconds and feet from having a car accident on the highway(Which is pretty much the case any time you drive on a highway, but moving on). His reaction is not unfathomable in a “survivor’s guilt” sort of way. A big ingredient in human empathy is recognizing something shitty and being gracious that it didn’t befall us. And so it’s understandable for us to have similar reactions when tragedies that we have avoided occur around us. But why do we have to broadcast these reactions to friends and family? What are we contributing by taking to Facebook and Twitter and announcing our own, however tenuous, proximity to this Thing? Is it really necessary to try to imply our closeness to the situation by claiming that we ran the marathon a year ago or went to school in Boston or plan on visiting Boston next month or drove through Boston with our family once or blew the drummer from Negative FX at The Pit in the 80s? How could that information possibly hold any weight in the context of lost limbs, friends, and sons?
You can play fatalistic “what-if?” in your head and apply it to just about anything. If my dad were born a few years earlier, maybe he gets drafted, goes to Saigon, comes back lacking certain hardware below the waist and I never exist. If I were a child from Sierra Leone, my parents would probably be slaughtered by warlords, who’d then force me to look for diamonds so they can sell them to Liberians who can then sell them to white people and if I did a good job, I’d be given a gun and ordered to kill the child who did a shitty job, thus entering into a tenure track Warlord Program. With a little imagination and a loose adherence to the rules of time and space, we can concoct infinite scenarios which place us at the heart of each and every tragedy. It reminds me of trying to get a 14 year old to connect to a piece of literature that doesn’t have immediate advice on how to finger their girlfriend or call their dad a “fuckface” without getting grounded. But the brain of a teenager is still developing so it’s excusable for them to be completely solipsistic and self-absorbed most of the time. It’s disconcerting that adults are exhibiting the same sort of behavior.
Or is this just something that I/we need to get used to? Given our culture’s omnipresent relationship to reality television and social media that — keeps us connected, sure — but also provides us with staggeringly efficient and socially accepted ways to inseminate the ether with our own narcissism, can I really be surprised that people manage to view things, almost exclusively, as how they pertain to themselves? Like teenagers, some of us still view the totality of life as if it were a movie in which we’re the main character and the endless combinations of events, individuals and contexts are A.) Things that we haven’t quite figured out how they relate to us; fit in our movie. or B.) Not important. And so when Something big and terrible and quite obviously important in every grander sense happens, we can’t help but snap into this “Hey, me too!” autopilot in which we grasp for every and any connection to this Thing, no matter how slight. Why? Because it’s so obviously big and important and we need in on that communal experience, even if it’s painful? Are we greedy attention whores heeding the example set by a culture that rewards greedy attention whoring? Do we not know how to empathize in any other way? Is it because we spend so much time staring at ourselves in mirrors of our own words and wit that we’ve been conditioned into viewing everything through that lens of self-absorbtion?
I don’t mean to suggest reality television and social media invented this phenomena. People have been co-opting pain and misery since guilt and sympathy were recognized as effective emotional manipulators, but our modern context provides a new canvas for it to flourish truer and deeper, not to mention record it for posterity. Nor is it my intention here to pronounce who’s really affected by whatever such tragedy. There are certainly real and valid ways for one to be proximately and indirectly affected by a tragedy. And sometimes you shift lanes at just the right moment and avoid becoming the person who is about to have a seriously shitty day. This is that guy’s shitty day now, not yours. Let him have it.