Dec 1, 2009

Death be not proud

73 people died in a ferry accident in the Congo on Saturday, and I just felt a bit sad. When CBC radio started detailing the nearby seaplane crash that killed 6 people this week, I changed the channel. But tonight when I found out that a high school dance partner was on that plane with her baby, I cried.

Without question, Kerry was worth crying over. In high school dances she and I would find each other across a crowded gym whenever katrina and the waves would belt out Walking on Sunshine, dancing in a crazed frenzy like only teenagers can. When I told Sarah, she told me how the whole birthing community is grieving the loss of the highly respected Dr. Kerry Telford she grew up to become.

Why does it take a personal connection to make me feel? What's so much more tragic about the death of a girl I danced with 23 years ago? The thing that stopped me in my tracks when I heard the news wasn't the loss of Kerry, but the stark indifference with which I'd heard the news of 6 Canadians or 73 Congolese deaths.

Am I that old and calloused? Have I just seen and lived around so much suffering and despair that I've become indifferent as a defense mechanism? Or perhaps I'm truly that highly evolved that I embrace death as a natural part of the life cycle? It's relatively easy to rationalize the death of someone else, especially an unknown someone else, but several deaths in my family a few years ago erased any illusions of being philosophically or spiritually beyond grieving.

When I was young and open and beautiful, I let myself feel every man's death diminishing me, just to be part of all mankind. But the world's a much bigger and badder place than John Donne's - would he have heard the bell tolling for every one of the 45,000 Congolese who are killed every month in their ongoing civil war?

What disturbs me most is the harsh pragmatism I exercise when changing the radio station. It doesn't serve me to cry over every death, I tell myself, so why should I listen? For that matter, it's not even physically or emotionally possible to cry over every death, or there'd never be any time for smiling. It simply doesn't make sense to invest energy in learning about or grieving about every death or tragedy.

So we pick and choose. We - with our trusty media's expert help - focus in on the tragedies that are most poignant, closest to home, somehow deserve to matter more. I save my tears for people I know, or once knew, or could have known. I feel the ferry accident more vividly only because I have travelled on that ferry many times, have been part of the overcrowding and lack of safety equipment through terrifying night storms. It's something I've lived and kept inside me, so it makes sense to care.

But what have I lost in being sensible? I fear the reality is a loss of connection to humanity, indeed a loss of humanity and perhaps humility. Is it only when a tragedy touches me that I can remember I'm part of this greater sadness as well as the greater good?

Kerry, none of this touches you now, but your death has reached me and the thousands of people who were graced by you. Whatever reflection you may have sparked in me, you are both part of us and released from us. And, I smile to believe, walking on sunshine.

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