My friend Ailin and I joke about how we're always thinking and talking in the future tense. "It's gonna be great," we declare, even as we realize it's already great right now. I often take long walks in the Brooklyn neighborhood where I was born and now (sometimes) live, and I look out at the water and think, "I really wanna travel." I immediately recognize how hilarious this is, because I travel all the time. Just a few weeks ago, I had brunch on Newbury Street blocks from the Boston Marathon finish line when I was in town for the Women in Comedy Festival. And in January, I arrived at my mom's house in Texas with the rest of the Pink Collar Comedy Tour to find a box of kolaches from the Czech Stop in West waiting for us in the fridge.
I'm so fortunate to get to travel all over the country telling jokes, but it does lend a feeling of personal connection, of immediacy, to tragedies that unfold in any of the many places I've visited. Facebook and Twitter compound that for all of us, too. Tonight I saw a whole lot of people posting about how overwhelmed they feel, about how stunned and saddened and worn out they are by the multiple tragedies this week. I lived in the Boston area for over a decade, and before that I lived in North Texas, right in between Waco and Oklahoma City. Our country is big. Bad things happen. Sometimes they happen all at once, one after another. Sometimes it feels like too much.
The victims of Monday's tragedy in Massachusetts received some of the best trauma and surgical care anywhere in the world. The extraordinary skill of the area's medical community springs to mind every time I see Boston's Christmas tree. In 1917, in the midst of World War I, a ship packed with munitions collided with another and exploded in Halifax Harbour, killing and wounding many thousands. Boston sent doctors to help the victims, and now Halifax donates a tree to Boston every year as a way of saying thanks. It's incredible to me to imagine the shock of that brutal tragedy in the middle of an already punishing war. And, the very next year, along came the Spanish Influenza.
Many middle-class Americans today live our whole lives on the promise of the future. We work hard and worry a lot, hoping that we'll get to that someday, that retirement, that next pot of gold at the end of each little journey of sacrifice. We invest tremendously in our children, as we should. We expect a lot of our safety and security, and we collectively pretty much pull it off. Have you noticed how safe air travel has gotten? That's thanks to a little bit of luck and a whole lot of human ingenuity and dedication.
Enough bits and bytes have been spent maligning the mainstream media and the perils of the 24 hour news cycle today. But I do want to point out how the urgent, dire tone of the news, combined with the barrage of personal accounts on social media, make us all feel artificially close to these tragedies. Posts we see on Facebook or Twitter often come from individuals at the very the heart of the latest disaster. Of course, they've been re-Tweeted 100,000 times or reposted by a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend, but the personal nature of the message we're receiving directly makes us all feel much closer to these tragedies than we actually are.
This can be good and bad. I'm always thrilled to see people raising money for victims or helping disseminate vital information using their networks of followers. But if even those of us far away from the latest tragic event start to feel hopelessness and despair, that's of no real help to the people on the ground suffering. As soon as social media and the news take us over that line from concerned fellow citizen into fellow sufferer, that's when it's time to disconnect, to step away, to feel our distance rather than our proximity.
The waterfront in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn I walked along today suffered minimal damage during Hurricane Sandy. Purple sandpipers still dot the rocks between my house and the pier on 69th St. I got home from my walk and, a few hours later, posted on social media about the need for blood donation in North Texas to help replenish the supply after today's tragedy in West. That's the best I can do for them from where I sit, thousands of miles away. My only other job is to avoid the pitfalls of despair and hopelessness, to stay grounded and realize that I'm safe and my loved ones are safe. Getting sucked into the worst emotions or mulling over the most dire thoughts about the state of the world helps no one. It's a lack of perspective. And it feels bad.
Feel sympathy. Feel love. Be generous. Be kind. But don't suffer for the suffering of others. What they really need is for the rest of us to keep our heads above water.
(And I promise I'll answer a relationship question in my next post. Boy, did I get some doozies...)