A woman who volunteers with me in public radio tells me that since January her father-in-law has been diagnosed with prostate cancer, and a friend, a very young man, has committed suicide. She sighs, says, "It's as if life is just..." Here she stops. Her eyes pool with tears. She balls her hands into fists and punches the air. "Bam!," she cries, a sound effect that accompanies each punch. Then she whips her head side to side a few times, as if to free it from pain. She continues in a soft, chastened voice: "It is selfish of me to coopt these stories. My own family is healthy and happy."
The guilt is familiar. I feel it, too, each time I grieve over a terrible story I hear on the news or read in the paper. Shame surfaces because it is impossible to digest tragedy without thinking, Thank God. Not me, not my family. We are human, after all, born with the biological instinct to protect our own.
But if instead we were to turn away from other people's losses - and there are so damn many of them - we would all suffer for it. Empathy serves a purpose: it motivates action to help those whom we are not naturally inclined to help.
So to my colleague at the radio station: Keep experiencing all the stories in the most visceral way. It's not selfish to do so. In fact it's the opposite: generous, compassionate, selfless.
And as for the quick and dirty relief we feel when the latest tragedy is not ours personally? I choose to reframe that sensation as profound gratitude for being spared as often I am. So much can go wrong, so much does go wrong. What a miracle when we can sink into the daily, the ordinary, the habitual, and take it for granted, as if getting through one's to-do list is all there is, and all there ever was.