My column this week on the psychology of what if it happens to me-ism. Also, worrying about your kids, being unable to protect them from various dangers, and then of course, worrying about that too. It's also about the loss of the great Philip Seymour Hoffman and a few other terrible things. Look, I never promised you a pep talk.
Here’s a thing I don’t like about myself.
When something terrible happens, like the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman, a person I deeply admired, I immediately think about how sad it would be if it happened to me. Or to someone I love. Lots of people do this of[Columnist Renee Dale]
Columnist Renee Dale
course, but when I notice egregious examples of it, of people inserting themselves more deeply than they need to, or wallowing in a third-hand tragedy in order to make themselves feel lucky, my discomfort creeps in.
The phenomenon of people crowding around a misery that isn’t theirs seems more complicated and less sinister than Schadenfreude. I don’t mean helping neighbors in a storm, metaphorical or literal; I don’t mean real charity or sandbagging a levee together. I mean luxuriating in the self-inflicted, tangential grief of distant events. I certainly don’t believe people derive direct pleasure from the pain of others. Well, maybe some individuals do, but I’m limiting my thinking to non-sociopaths. Most human outreach is completely innocent, motivated by sincerity. When I cut into the center of my own reactions to someone else’s sorrow, I sometimes hear a familiar what if it happened to me howl in the dark. This feels selfish, cheap. I’m ashamed to be thinking of myself, my people, my life, in a moment that has nothing to do with me at all.
Why should I need to imagine that the exact horrible thing happening in my life to wince over the pain of another? This was on my mind when Hoffman died so horribly, and sent me into a spiral of worry. First I felt shock and sadness about him, his family, the fact that we’ll never experience the thrill of watching him perform again; but then: worry. Worry that I’ll be ill equipped to deter my own children from using drugs someday. That I’ll be ill equipped to shield them from whatever difficulties and demons drive people in that direction. Or how they can just arrive there accidentally, finding they have a taste for dangerous things.
Every time I hear a tragic story—parents outliving their children, people cruelly struck with illness, lives taking awful turns—I experience overwhelming sympathy for the people affected, and then I worry. From the moment they were born, worries about my children have been able to bloom as rapidly as a time-lapse flower, even with the most tenuous of prompts. But really, what in the world did the real and profound loss of a person’s life have to do with some hypothetical, future problem of mine?
When a calamity or sudden death happens, everyone expresses shock. We search for clues. (On a separate note, when someone beloved and famous dies, law enforcement takes note, too. I wonder how many drug deaths happen in New York City every day that result in no such investigation as followed Hoffman’s overdose. I’m all for it, the pursuit, arrest and punishment of anyone selling heroin to anyone else, no matter who they are, but the swiftness here, the urgency in apprehending the source was all very public, showy. I’m glad they looked. Glad they found them. I hope they look for all kinds of people who do heinous things and end up killing one another.)[Philip Seymour Hoffman Pic]
Actor Philip Seymour Hoffman with his 2006 Oscar for best actor, for his role in the film Capote.
We text each other when terrible things happen. Can you believe it? So Sad. How Awful. Remember how we used to see him in the West Village and he was just so normal and kind? A father. We tweet somber tributes and send our respects into the vortex. Everyone chimes, does their part to prove they feel the sting too. I’m betting that whatever space at the Oscars would have previously gone to discussing Robert Redford’s wrongful snub, will now be filled up with displays of sorrow about Hoffman’s death. It makes sense. People do mean it. It is sad and unfair. The loss is worth remarking upon, and if we concentrate hard enough, we can imagine our way into the shallow end of the fathoms of grief that the actual people who loved him will go to. Either way, I’ll cry through any tribute they see fit to broadcast.
I’m aware of the groove of narcissistic thought one can get stuck in. Oh my god, I’d DIE if that happened to me. Oh my god, how do they get out of bed in the morning? Maybe I would die. Who knows? Maybe I’m not sturdy at all. There’s certainly a whole list of things I can imagine never coming back from. I’m a skilled catastrophist. I can conjure a dozen grisly emotional horrors on command, but this isn’t helpful when something terrible actually does happen. It doesn’t prepare. It doesn’t ease. Even as I suggest this, I’m working hard to suppress thoughts of any such terrible thing coming to pass in my life. Emotional shape-shifting helps in the formation of a writer’s mind, but it’s probably useless when it comes to helping others, or myself, overcome a loss. What did I learn anyway, about protecting my kids from addiction by reading heartbreaking details from the end of a stranger’s life? Studying the face of Hoffman’s grieving mother in the paper, feeling enormous sympathy and curiosity about the hardship his former girlfriend will endure in the years ahead, not to mention what she’d likely already been put through, brings me no further clarity.
I tear up over things all the time, even manufactured things, fictions. Who has any right to make room for this when the world is filled with actual horrors? I do, I guess. I’m a sentimental, salty puddle. With the exception of technology commercials for phones, which I find so nakedly craven in their attempts to make us think our devices can provide eternal love, intimacy and familial perfection—don’t ask me to marry you via Skype; don’t secretly record me and make a movie of our life, just sit at the god damn table and talk to me—I still cry during commercials! This is ridiculous! It’s also a surprise, as I see so few commercials, thank God, since the advent of On Demand programming. Watching operatically produced, waterworks coaxing Olympics stories, even while I know I’m being manipulated by Bob Costas and his pinkeye, gets me from time to time too. I can’t help it! I cry during movies routinely. I cry during domestic dramas on primetime. I cried for the entire season of The Wire featuring the elementary school kids. Couldn’t stop. I rewatched the movie Mask recently, and the despair I carried for a week afterward was like wearing an anvil around my neck. The problem is, I didn’t rush out and volunteer at a cranio-facial childrens’ hospital. I didn’t decide to dedicate my life to teaching desperate inner-city kids how to read. I just walked around feeling like garbage. Thinking about how unfair the lives of some people are. Maybe even looking over my shoulder for what might be gaining on—you guessed it—me.
When I was a kid, I assumed this was the only way we accessed sympathy for others, by imagining how an unfortunate scenario would feel if it happened to me. And then, feeling grateful that it was not happening to me. This was To Kill A Mockingbird territory, which made a huge impression. It’s probably an excellent way to begin as children and adolescents, to form a clear, identifiable path to empathy. Embodiment of another’s feelings – It is, I suppose, the best and most natural thing in the world. But when we get older and begin to collect the trappings of a full life, we gain things we cannot imagine being taken from us. Empathy becomes more nuanced, more greedy. Everything we see can become tied up in our own world. Don’t take that from me! I need it. I need all these people in order to survive. There’s just so much to lose. So much at stake all the time.
What’s the alternative? A lack of sensitivity? Of course not. An open conduit, being aware, and as a result feeling blue, is infinitely better. But doing something besides sidling up, adjacent to the pain of others, is best. I’m still figuring out how to do that.
I was rereading Nora Ephron recently, her essay on the stages of parenting. I was thinking, during my misplaced panic about shielding my children from drugs and despair, how she says it all eventually comes to an end. Children and loved ones move on, have lives of their own. And you find you are suddenly done with the job. Will they make good choices? Will all of the efforts and anxiety and attention and love be a hedge against disaster? No one can say. All kinds of things—wonderful and awful—happen to all kinds of people. At a certain point, you let go of the controls. You’re just…done.
“Except for the worrying,” she writes. “The worrying is forever.” How true. How frightening. See? I’m doing it again. No matter what, there is always so much to worry about. I’ll bet that Philip Seymour Hoffman’s mother, of whom I know nothing about, would completely agree.
This essay first appeared on South Brooklyn Post on February 27, 2014.