Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.
--Daniel Patrick Moynihan

April 25, 2015

The Parochialism of Grief

By David K. Shipler

            We awoke this morning to the terrible news of the devastating earthquake in Nepal, where our son and daughter-in-law used to live doing humanitarian work, and where they have many friends. Through them, we also know several people there, so our natural and urgent need was to learn whether our friends and theirs were OK. Fortunately, the answer was yes, all were accounted for, which brought a sense of great relief. And then I felt a wave of guilt for being relieved just because those who perished were unknown to me personally. Was it enough to ache with diffuse sorrow at a distant tragedy, instead of being cut by a sharp edge of personal grief?
            We each live at the center of concentric circles of affinity, from our immediate families close in the middle, to rings of wider relatives, to dear friends, then more casual or professional acquaintances, and out into the wilderness of humanity at large. And within that vast reservoir of anonymous people, our connections and concerns—and pain of loss—are often determined by how alike the victims are to us.
            Years ago, a bunch of us reporters at The New York Times tried to graph the way this unconscious calculation shaped news judgments.
On a slow night in the newsroom, a few of us on duty indulged our gallows humor by drawing up a chart showing how many people would have to die to make a “spread”—a full story—in the paper. We began with something like 300 in a ferry capsizing in Bangladesh, to 100 in Russia, to 50 in Western Europe, to 15 in Harlem, down to one on Manhattan’s wealthy and white Upper East Side. It was a sardonic criticism of our own business, all the more devastating for the basic truth it told.
            It came to mind during the recent intensity of coverage afforded the Germanwings airliner that was flown by its co-pilot into a mountainside in France. It carried 150 people, mostly Europeans, bound from Spain to Germany. Compare the blinding spotlight that was turned on the tragedy for weeks with the fleeting attention in 2013 to the nearly identical crash of a Mozambique Airlines plane, heading from Mozambique to Angola, that was intentionally flown by the pilot into the ground in a Namibian national park. The 27 passengers included 19 Africans, 6 Europeans, one Brazilian, and one Chinese.
The difference in numbers might partly explain the difference in coverage, but surely it was also a function of the reflex of caring about people who seem like “us.” The vague definition of “us” includes race, nationality, culture, and class. Can you remember a news report on a crash or sinking or earthquake that failed to enumerate the number of Americans among the victims, if any? Or the number of French if you’re in France, Russians if you’re in Russia, Brazilians if you’re in Brazil? If a reporter fails to get this number, you can bet that an editor will ask for it.
This selective sensitivity seems hard-wired in all of us, and therefore, given all the other flaws of our species, low down on the list of things to lament. This morning, shortly after the news of the earthquake in Nepal, the mail brought a newsletter from an American who runs a very good non-profit organization in Kenya. He listed his connections with victims of violence there: the former head of a sister organization, killed in the Westgate Mall attack; his daughter-in-law’s aunt, wounded in an attack on a church; his nephew’s police colleague, killed at the same police station targeted by a car bomb.
Being touched personally by such hurt diminishes the imagined zone of safety. Wars and earthquakes seem less remote, and life seems more fragile, tragedy less abstract. My son said that waiting for news from Nepal, delivered mostly via Facebook in quick time, reminded him of 9/11, when he spent all day wondering whether a good friend who worked in the World Trade Center was dead. (He was not, thankfully.)
Perhaps if human beings had truly been made in the image of goodness, we would feel every death acutely, and we would therefore not visit death on those we do not personally know. But as the British playwright Caryl Churchill has a character say, advising what to tell a child in her biting, controversial work, Seven Jewish Children: A Play for Gaza, “Tell her I look at one of their children covered in blood and what do I feel? Tell her all I feel is happy it’s not her.”
Who among us is not relieved to learn that the victim is not his own and is not then ashamed to be relieved?


  1. In a similar vein, I remember a Rabbi speaking about how he was driving home when he heard police and fire sirens causing him to pray that it wasn't his house on fire, not his family in danger. And then he asked, But is it better that it's someone else's house - someone else's family? It was a good subject to ponder...
    Thanks for the thoughts on this...
    Something to think about - but we'll probably never change!...

  2. In some Buddhist meditation, Tibetan I most know, you encompass everyone in your
    meditation. No difference whether peoples known or unknown. Sense is we know
    everyone- we all have emotions, cares, sorrows.
    In Tonglen meditation you close your eyes, breathe in darkness of sorrow,sickness...
    and breathe out lightness, healing, airiness. I like the simple, quiet unity of life
    in the midst of panic, death, emotions,earthly happenings. Ellen