When you live in a small town, everything feels personal. It isn't necessarily so, but it always feels that way. On Friday night, a university student fell off of a ninth floor balcony and died. It's not clear just yet whether he was under the influence of alcohol, or depressed, or both. Perhaps it was only an accident. But whatever its cause, it turns out that the student was enrolled in the class my husband is currently teaching. "What should I do about his grade?," my husband mused. "His parents may want to know how he was doing." I sighed and replied that there are probably protocols in place for what professors ought to do in such a situation. "Yes," he agreed, and fell silent. I expect that we were both thinking that this kid -- because he was just a kid, wasn't he? -- was only two or three years older than our firstborn son. Because that's what humans do, often -- make connections.
Hours after the death of the university student, on Saturday morning proper, a bicyclist and a motorist collided at one of the busiest intersections in town. Severe head injury, I read in the local paper. No name yet published. But our community is not large, and my husband and I found ourselves considering whether we might in fact know the bicyclist, the motorist, or -- an awful coincidence, surely -- both.
Meanwhile, a colleague of mine at work is on leave as she cares for her husband, who has long suffered from colon cancer and is now in hospice. We at work are offering money so that my coworker and her family might be able to eat a Thanksgiving dinner without worrying about taking the time to prepare it. Time is at its most precious for this family just now. I can't help raging inwardly about the scourge of cancer, how it takes so many people from us, and far too young besides. This man is only fifty-one years old. As his family members eat (or fail to eat?) their Thanksgiving meal, will they be able to avoid feeling as if Thanksgiving ought to have been canceled this year, or to avoid asking themselves what exactly there is to be thankful for?
All this I place in relation to the horror that recently unspooled in the Philippines. So many dead. I am unable to wrap my mind around the sheer numbers. I keep returning to the hope that death was quick, at least for many of the victims of the Asian typhoon, but I suspect that I am defensively attempting to put a positive spin on something that contains no positives, none at all.
The thread that stitches together the incidents in my town and the one that continue more than halfway across the world is my helpless empathy in the face of them. I can throw money at victims' funds and Thanksgiving dinners, and I suppose that doing so is better than doing nothing. But why then do I feel so terrible? My imagination has always been outsized. I close my eyes and imagine a wave washing over me, a rush of indifferent water separating me from my small child. Or I ruminate about how one says goodbye to a person who is dying. In theory I have experience in this area. I spent plenty of time with my mother in the season of her dying. But I never really said what I wanted or needed to say to her. Either I was afraid, or the moment simply didn't present itself the way it does in the movies. Or maybe I try to understand how I would feel if I were a motorist who hit a human being with my vehicle. Pretty awful, needless to say.
How does all this angst translate into anything productive? Or does it assert itself as a reminder that I am human, that we are all human, prone to the vagaries of wind, sea, and circumstance? Empathy surely allows me to treat those in my tiny sphere of influence with kindness and understanding. Maybe that's why we feel so acutely: so that we can be better friends, parents, lovers, humans.
Sometime between when this college kid -- only a sophomore! -- fell off of a balcony and the time the bicyclist and motorist had the misfortune to cross paths hours later, a friend of mine gave birth to a healthy, robust nine-pound boy. A beauty, as all newborns are, if you ask me. At the news I felt a wave of serenity and love so strong for this child, this boy whom I've never met and probably never will. Empathy, again. The other side of the coin. Welcome to the world, Marshall, I gushed.
And maybe that's it? That for all the tragedy, there is so much joy. That world-wide four babies are born every single second. Four lives that so recently were only theoretical. Four minds that might just work in wonderful and novel ways, enabling a cure for colon cancer, or the design of a bicycle helmet that eliminates severe head injuries, or the development of a system allowing us to predict dangerous meteorological events weeks in advance, early enough to save untold numbers of lives.
If we didn't mourn for people, could we feel such joy on their behalf?