In fact I don’t know if there’s anything wrong with me at all, but I’ve noticed over the years that the way I react to accidental tragedy is not the same as the vast majority of others.
If you find yourself feeling different emotions to everyone else and give half a damn about being a reasonable human being, you have to ask:
“What’s wrong with me? Why don’t I feel as upset and outraged as everyone else about the senseless death of the Irish teenagers in California?”
Where I appear to be emotionally different, if not exactly deficient, is that I’ve never been able to feel more for one stranger’s loss than another.
Forgive me if I’m sounding disingenuous. It’s no mystery to me why you all feel the way you do. I completely understand why the Irish feel this pain of loss of their own so deeply. It’s just that I don’t; not in the same way.
It would be easy to explain this national cauldron of boiling tears as the result of a small population feeling strong empathy and a sense of community, yet I recognise the phenomenon.
It’s exactly the same collective grief the English felt when the Princess of Wales died. A moment in time, a gash into the heart of the zeitgeist out of which the tears flowed. England has a large population, but still they mourned as one, for a stranger.
32 million watched her funeral. The usually stoic English cried in the streets for Diana because, estranged from the Royal Family, they saw her as a tragic victim of circumstance.
Ireland has recently lost many young people to emigration, and the death of these young people has reflected the fears and insecurities of all.
Well, nearly all.
Of course I was shocked and sad, but no more than I was for the 53 who died that day in a bus crash in Peru or the 27 who were drowned in a tropical storm in Indonesia.
Did they? The fact that you don’t know illustrates why I feel the way I do. Such tragic accidents happen all over the world every day, and my heart breaks for every parent who lost a child, every friend who lost a soul mate.
This disparity of feeling with the rest of the population does not apply to tragedies where injustice has been perpetrated. It does not apply to crimes of hate, prejudice or war. If anything, they make me feel more angry than most; even vengeful on occasion.
To those of you thinking that I’d feel different if I had my own children, take that ‘Baby On Board’ sticker off your car’s rear window and spend a moment or two contemplating the nature of compassion. As a man of many faults, I can state with the utmost certainty that emotional constipation is not one of them.
Without having been a parent, I’ve lived an exciting and demanding life, experiencing many extremes of emotion. Love and the loss of it have driven me insane three times and through the deaths of friends and family, I have grieved; lain for months, like a felled oak, on the sofa, trying to come to terms with absence.
Yes, of course I hurt when I lose those that I know and love. I’m not a monster. My heart breaks and swells as well as any of yours.
It’s just the strangers, the tens of thousands of people I don’t know around the world, whose deaths arrive in my life as news items, in papers and on TV.
“Six English people died in the plane crash. There were 285 passengers on board and no survivors.”
Does that somehow infer that the other victims were of less significance? I hurt for them all equally.
Yet for most there appears to be a straight-line graph, wherein ‘X’ represents the number of dead, while ‘Y’ is formed by combining your distance from the tragedy with the greater the difference in appearance and culture the victims have to you.
Hence two European whites found eaten alive in the Amazon jungle will score more column inches, TV time and strangers’ tears shed over cups of tea than 3,125 Africans macheted to ribbons in the Democratic Republic of Congo, or 112 in Bangladesh washed away by a swollen river breaking its banks.
When the people look very different to us and live far away, thousands of them have to die before you even know they’ve gone, yet when they’re from your own country you feel the loss of a handful as painfully as if they were your own children.
You feel a kinship with those poor Irish parents, siblings and friends that I do not. Maybe I’ve lived in too many countries over the years, but to be honest, no, that not it.
The difference in the way I feel comes primarily from being utterly human. Notions of nationality, patriotism and ethnic pride are alive and well within me, but beyond them and everything else, I just feel I’m homo sapiens, the species that crawls all over this planet making a right mess of things.
As such I feel linked to all 7 billion of us and cannot prioritise the death of one stranger over another. Neither proud nor embarrassed by my emotional difference to the pack, I fast-forward through ‘human interest’ stories of a teenage runaways on the TV news.
Yes I care, but no more than I do for the thousands of street kids in broken Syria.
I don't feel less, I just feel different. My heart is not cold. I am sad for all loss of life, be it brought about by illness, age, accident or war. My heart bleeds for those Irish families, just as it does for all the victims of tragedy whose death didn’t make the front page.