Acknowledging the Death of Strangers (Empathy)

After an otherwise enjoyable holiday weekend with family and friends, I found myself saddened once again by news of murder and death, and posted this status update to my Facebook feed on July 4th:

“Today, as we celebrate our American Independence Day, my heart breaks for the victims of hate in Baghdad, Iraq and Dhaka, Bangladesh.”

Many of my “friends” responded with sad and angry emoticons, a few with standard Facebook “likes” indicating (I hope) approval of my post, rather than their like of murder and/or death. I should point out that my “friends” are comprised of the following five (5) types, which may alter the significance and value of their responses to my posts:
  1. Family & Close Friends = 40+
  2. Friends, Colleagues & Fellow Alumni = 500+
  3. Real Social Media Friends (people I’ve had dialogue with over time, and about whose lives I know something) = 500+
  4. Social Media “Friends” I Don’t Really Know (but friended because they were in one or more communities — such as photography, art, fashion — in which I work, take pleasure, or both) = 3000+ OK, I freely admit to going a little “friend-crazy” for a while there, but it’s fun, and good for my work too…
  5. Social Media Friends of Friends (no idea who they are; don’t know anything about them, but due to some recently added Facebook functionality, they can see our mutual friends’ interactions with my posts, and may occasionally comment on my posts as a result) = UNLIMITED?

My “friends” responding on Facebook to this particular status update, fell into all five types/categories, though of course (as usual) my “besties” were well-represented. One Type 4 commented with her assent in Portuguese (Brazilian, I think), and after 24 hours, a Type 3 friend from the UK added her support:

The unheard… Yes”

History: I “met” this Type 3 friend on Instagram a few years back, enjoyed her images, had some nice dialogue with her about Hipstamatic, common musical interests, and our mutual “friends” there. Hadn’t had any interaction in a year or more with her, so I enjoyed seeing her comment, and that she pointed out I had acknowledged the “unheard” victims (those not known, or mentioned sufficiently, if at all, in the media of my country, the USA). A short time later, a Type 5 — apparently a friend of Ms. Type 3 — threw her conversational hat into the ring with:
“They are the heard, the unheard are the ones your heart is not breaking for because that is the agenda your media has set out for you.”
 OK, a new Type 5 in my life! The way I see it, any friend of a Type 1–4 friend, is a Type 5 friend of mine!  I actually agreed with her comment, though it seemed a little like our mutual friend and I were both being chided for being limited in our information (from “our” media) and only acknowledging both the heard, known victims. I see myself as a bleeding heart, and an equal-opportunity breaking-heart, so I responded:
“We do what we can! We cannot hear and know everything, and we cannot fight every injustice…”

Innocuous enough, right? I admitted to being limited in what I know, or become aware of, whatever the source of my information may be, and I thought this response would end the dialogue between us on this post. I should mention that with rare exceptions, I NEVER engage (even with family) in long, passionate social media dialogues, debates and/or arguments, preferring a private message, email or even a phone call for anything longer than 2-3 back-and-forths! But my new Type 5 “friend” continued:

“Exactly why it’s boring to me to see people posting what the current media agenda wants them to think. as if these people mean anything to you really. they probably live nowhere near you, and their deaths are really meaningless to you. peoples focus or empathy is directed by the media, and it shouldn’t be that way, part of the large disconnect to me seems to be humans trying to ingest such a huge amount of information they can’t handle it. e.g. if your heart really went out for everyone that died, you would have killed yourself already.”

I read this carefully…extracting three main points she seemed to be making: (1) it’s boring to post anything that is based on our media-provided information, (2) the death of strangers is not meaningful, and should not invoke feelings in me or anyone else, because the media is directing our emotions and (3) humans are disconnected because they ingest too much information. Oh, and (4) if I really felt all the heartbreak for all the death, I’d have committed suicide by now.

After some reflection, I found myself taking offense to the “boring” comment (I hate when my kids say something is boring, or they’re bored), smiling at the “heartbreak/suicide bit, because I’m an empathic person, and I feel things on behalf of others all the time. Then I thought about what the death of a stranger really means, and how I/we ingest our information, and react to it…

While I mused, my Type 3 concurred with Type 5, seemingly rescinding her support of my original status update post and they went on to banter back-and-forth about the boring, predictableness of it all:

“It’s true what you say”
“I know hehehe”
“Watching Facebook posts. It’s like they are scripted”
I know”
Predictive text”
Well…you could say that many people saying and/or feeling the same thing(s), is mass emotion, patterns in the matrix, or synchronicity, but it is certainly not scripted. Some people are not unique, or don’t try to say things in a unique, compelling, or fabulous way when they are participating in a mass emotion. So I replied (edited to protect both the guilty and innocent):
“Boring? NO, and if death ever becomes boring, and unworthy of attention, acknowledgement, or empathy, for anyone, then such a person has fallen into some horrible form of jaded, uncaring complacency! And, MY posts (unlike everyone else’s, of course!) are not scripted, though they may be predictable sometimes (if you know me).
Here’s why: I write haiku, which came out of captioning my photographs for several years, and discovering I was quite often writing them in 5-7-5 haiku form. Next, I developed a desire to post topical haiku (and senryu), which was often inspired by or based current events (via the media). For a while, I tried to comment meaningfully via my haiku and images on the atrocities and deaths (those I was aware of, of course) in the world around me, but honestly, I became exhausted by it all (not quite suicidal, as you suggest), and could no longer write anything meaningful.
Instead, just on Facebook, I moved to a sort of emotional mantra beginning with “today, my heart breaks for…” and I will continue to do so because — although the victims are usually far away, and not known to me personally — it is important to acknowledge their death and suffering as the result of hate crimes, war, and other atrocities.
I suppose this means I will inevitably continue to bore you with my ongoing acknowledgements of death by hate around the world (the incidents my media and a few friends will tell me about), in a predictable format. I can’t write any more haiku about it, ’cause there’s too much death by hate and other atrocities, but I am an empath, so my heart actually does break a little every f__king time… So, prepare yourself!

So, I think it’s critically important — part of the “job description” — for any human to acknowledge and feel sadness at the death or suffering of others, especially when it results from hate, war, or terrorism. Due to the size of our planet, with its large and growing population, 99.999999% (that’s six nines) of the tme, virtually all others who die will be strangers to us, people we have never met before, and would probably never meet, even if they had lived. Yet we must feel something when we hear of their untimely death(s), at the hands of criminals, madmen, and/or terrorists, don’t you think?

Feeling something for the victims of atrocities is necessary and good — whether outrage, anger, desire for justice, or compassion, sadness, empathy — these feelings are the best evidence of our humanity. These days, more than ever, we are given many opportunities to feel such feelings; we must continue to feel them, and prove our humanity. We should feel strong feelings when we hear of murders and terrorism. Strong feelings are the basis of change; the inspiration and motivation to envision, and work toward change, to make things better for ourselves, and others.

Is the media filtering our information? Yes. Is the media leading us in a direction, shifting us in and out of focus, invoking the feelings they think we should feel? Absolutely! In this I agree with my new Type 5 friend, and all I can say is what I’ve learned, and try to teach my kids:

“Get your news and other information from more than one source, process and cross-reference the information, to find the truth.”

If, as Brian Tracy said, “competence is the number of patterns you recognize” then, to be competent at living our lives, we must process all possible news and information, from all available sources, to recognize as many patterns as possible, of truth in our world, our lives, and our humanity. We will discover, if we haven’t already, that feeling compassion and empathy, in response to atrocities, is a fundamental, and necessary human pattern. It’s also a gift, which we give (and must keep giving) naturally and selflessly to the victims of hate, war and terrorism, whoever and wherever they are, even if we don’t know them.

Compassion and empathy, especially for strangers, are the best proof of our humanity.

— Russ —

SHAMELESS PLUG: If interested, click here to check out some of my poetry as mentioned above: Haiku & Senryu musings by the Haikook (Russ Murray)!

1 thought on “Acknowledging the Death of Strangers (Empathy)

  1. Reblogged this on Beautifully Different and commented:

    This is one of several personal posts, which formed the basis of launching Beautifully Different…


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