Last Sunday morning, Carolyn and I shook in bed as the house rocked and rolled, creaked and rattled. A 6.1 earthquake struck near Napa, 60 miles away. Downtown Napa suffered significant damage. San Francisco emerged unscathed. Nine hours later, we flew to Los Angeles to visit our oldest son, Seth.
Former Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill famously stated that all politics are local. It’s the same for most disasters. If we escape injury or damage, we move on. In the Bay Area, people focused on the A’s loss to the Angels in Oakland and the 49ers pre-season win over the Chargers in Santa Clara, along with the usual cultural and private events, brunches, and simply puttering around the house.
In Santa Monica, Carolyn and I took a walk along the beach on a sunny, pleasant afternoon. We stopped at the Santa Monica Pier. People strolled, rode the Ferris wheel and rollercoaster, fished, ate and drank. Napa’s problems were Napa’s problems.
Do we have a problem here? It’s complicated. When we personally experience a tragedy or even a minor difficulty, we’re engrossed, sometimes overwhelmed. Short of that, most of us note an earthquake or a flood or a murder or a grizzly accident and get on with our lives. We feel bad that it happened to others and, even if we won’t admit it, glad it didn’t happen to us. If we can help, we send a check or donate goods. We might do a volunteer shift when needed. Then we let go. There’s good reason.
Dwelling on tragedy can alter or even crush the psyche. After all, tragedies occur daily. Our survival instinct compels us to turn towards something more positive—humor, food, TV, a ballgame, sex with the right person. Sometimes, regrettably, we turn to the negative—alcohol, drugs, sex with the wrong person.
This presents a conundrum. Becoming overwhelmed by others’ tragedies puts personal physical and emotional health at risk. Yet ignoring them puts society at risk. Given exposure to instant, 24/7 media coverage, maintaining an even keel requires balancing skills a Cirque du Soleil tightrope walker would envy. Many people just ignore the news. Buying into the theory that ignorance is bliss, they risk abetting further tragedies. Others can’t let go. They carry the weight of the world on their shoulders. They’re admirable people but prone to drowning in tragedy. Sometimes, they drag others under with them.
So yes, our emotional survival requires moments of joy and laughter. A wonderful English professor of mine at Alfred University, Mel Bernstein, once told me, “Never lose your sense of humor.” That advice helped get me through any number of challenges. Still, our individual and societal survival demands continuous attention to potential threats—whether from economic shocks and crime at home to the spread of Ebola in West Africa, Islamism in the Middle East and the Ukraine-Russia confrontation in Eastern Europe.
There’s a Holocaust story, possibly apocryphal but definitely enlightening, about the human need for emotional balance. In a death camp, a group of Jews engage in a heated debate. Some believe in God’s existence. Others deny it. Then one prisoner announces, “It’s time for Mincha [the afternoon service].” All the prisoners go off together to pray.
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