26 June, 2009

Tears for Strangers

You know, the last thing I expected was a little jolt when I found out Michael Jackson died. I wasn't a fan, didn't like his music, and certainly didn't like the man. But I can't deny that it felt like there was suddenly a strange empty space in the world. A rather small one for me, huge for others. News of his death actually came close to crashing cell phone networks everywhere as people called or texted each other the news. A friend of a friend cried for three hours.

We get awfully close to people we don't know.

Psychologists occasionally try to explain our tears for strangers. I didn't find many research papers in my desultory search through the intertoobz, but found some quotes in various and sundry articles relating to other celeb deaths that attempt to shed some light:
Attempting to explain the phenomenon, clinical psychologist Fiona Cathcart says it is partly down to today's less community-minded society.

"People overtake hearses these days," she says, the point being that in modern communities, neighbours do not invest time in getting to know each other.

Instead, it is the rich and famous; the faces on television and in celebrity-focused magazines that command our attention.

"We know more about the details of their lives. The clothes they wear, their ambitions, where they last went on holiday than we do of the family next door."
Yes, but, the same kind of mourning goes on in tight-knit communities, too. My old neighborhood in Flagstaff was about as intimate as it gets, positively incestuous at times, and yet we still chocked up at the deaths of strangers. Having friends I knew like family didn't keep me from getting seriously emotionally involved with even fictional people. So we're going to have to do better than "It's because we're all strangers" pap. Anyone else?
"People want to be close to major events, no matter how tragic," said Stuart Fischoff, senior editor of the Journal of Media Psychology. "They want to feel like they are participating. They want to create that memory of 'I was there when.' People say, 'I'm a fan and this is how I show my concern for him.'"
Eh. Don't know about your mileage, but that doesn't resonate for me. Some people I know are like that. Others are just about the opposite. And that doesn't explain why a really good author can leave you sobbing your poor little heart out over somebody who never actually existed.

Part of it's the knowing. Get to know somebody well enough, even if it's not a two-way street, and you start to care. We can't help that - we're human. And whether it's a celebrity or a great character, those people we've come to know give us something in turn for the time we bestow on them. They entertain us, sometimes enlighten us; they keep us company, help us dream, let us experience worlds we're otherwise excluded from. We develop something of a relationship that has real meaning. Sometimes, it's just a matter of symbols, or history - I may not even like Michael Jackson, but I did the Moonwalk with everyone else, and he was a part of my childhood. It's tough to see pieces of your past go.

Sometimes, the tears come from what we know we'll miss out on. Take Carl Sagan, whose death still chokes me up at times. He was a brilliant science popularizer whose books and teevee programs many of us adored, so is it any wonder we miss him? What else could he have done, had he not died so soon?

Some shrinks think it's mostly the "could'a happened to any of us" factor, too:
Dr Oliver James, whose book Britain on the Couch examines psychological changes in the nation's character since the 1950s, says Diana's troubled life in some ways mirrored the difficult experiences of normal people.
Sure. And we want to see them succeed, survive and flourish, because that offers us some vicarious comfort. Not to mention, we were pulling for them. We really did care.

I know some people question that - can you really care for a stranger? Of course you can. Not in the same way you'd care for family or close friends, usually, but it's a genuine caring nonetheless. Humans are like that.

And in some cases, perhaps, it's a coping mechanism, a chance to get it right the second time, or practice for the inevitable:

Mourning the death of a celebrity retriggers suppressed feelings of loss for an actual loved one, said professor Sherri McCarthy, a psychologist and a grief counselor at Northern Arizona University.

"People are vulnerable because these events retrigger memories of losing someone else. If an individual has unresolved, suppressed feeling of grief they may use this opportunity to express those feelings. If a child didn't grieve a parent properly, they can displace that grief on someone in the media."

Probably all of the above speculations have some grain of truth, to varied degrees for varied people. But as a writer and a human being, I do think this is the paramount factor:

As Arthur Koestler put it: "Statistics don't bleed; it is the detail which counts."
The more detail we have, the more we're able to care: the more we care, the more those strangers' deaths affect us. Think of Neda, who's become the symbol of Iran's brutal repression of political dissenters. Others have been killed just as gruesomely - at least 25 are dead - but she's the one who stands out. And part of that is because of the detail. The graphic images of her death, the few details of her young life, combine to turn statistics into a person we find it easy to care about, a memory we can rally round, an inspiration.

And the people who have inspired us deserve a tear or two whether or not we've ever had them over for tea, don't you think?


RickU said...

Instead of watching the MJ coverage last night, my wife and I watched the Mark Twain prize being awarded (posthumously of course) to George Carlin on a PBS special.

His death resonates much more deeply with me even though I'd never met him and never been to a show. He was one of us.

Cujo359 said...

I think you've described why we feel the way we do when celebrities die pretty well. Even though we don't know them, they end up being important to us.

In MJ's case, what I liked about him was his work, which will live on. Perhaps that's why his death seems less tragic to me than it does to others. That, plus I was never that much concerned about celebrity gossip in the first place.

Woozle said...

I third Dana and Cujo: what's wrong with basic "empathy" as an explanation? We learn enough about someone's life to identify with them in some way, and that means we (some of us, anyway) actually come to care for that person. We know there's bugger all we can do for them, but in some ways that makes it all the more intense.

I always imagined that MJ's vast and complex financial empire must have been immensely isolating for him. Who could he possibly ever go to for advice, that he could trust to be both sympathetic (which would not, as I understand it, include his family) and not "only in it for the money" (which would exclude pretty much everyone else)?

Really liked some of his music, really hated some of it too.

In celebration of life and death, I will now regale you with a parody of the chorus to "We Are the World" created by a now-deceased friend and myself somewhere in the 1985-1986 timeframe [picks up guitar, tries to tune it, gives up]:

We are the worms
We are the chitlins
We are the monks who know it's Saturday, so let's rob Cleveland
There's some shorts we're taking
We're shaving our own legs
It's true we know it's Saturday,
You stupid tree.

(Or something like that. I'm not sure we ever officially worked out the last line.)

"Ladies and gentlemen, I have suffered for my music; now it's your turn." -- Neil Innes