One of my favorite high school teachers once spoke a lesson I will never forget. It was about the difference between fear, terror, and horror. Fear, he said, was like saying to one of our classmates, “I’m going to kill you!” and meaning it. The classmate would then experience fear. Terror, he said, was—imagining him to be much larger, stronger, and meaner—grabbing that student by the neck, hauling him to the top of a high building, and holding him over the edge. At that point, the student would be experiencing terror. Horror, he went on to explain, was what the people on the ground would feel when he dropped the student to his death.
Just a few days ago my wife and I witnessed a horror while driving home. While we waited our turn at a busy intersection, an unwise black cat (evidently stray) attempted to beat the first three lanes of oncoming traffic and failed. It was struck once, attempted to turn back too late—a second time—turned again, now confused—and was hit a third time. The oncoming cars had nowhere to go, the cat was small and stupid, the outcome was inevitable.
My wife covered her own eyes, then worked to avert the eyes of our young son in the back seat. Meanwhile, I watched—I felt somehow that it was important to watch—while the cat twitched and spasmed, its back arched. The light had turned, no cars passed through the intersection, and all that could be done was to keep a strange vigil during the final moments of that feline’s life.
Meanwhile, in a lonely room in California, another horror took place. Robin Williams, comedian extraordinaire, brilliant fount of joy in others, took his own life. But for him, no one was there to witness. No cars stopped. No one knocked on the door. No one was there to keep vigil as he twitched, and spasmed, and expired.
At the same time as both of these things—even at this very moment while you read these words—horrors are enacted around the world both close to you and far away. Humans are shooting other humans in eastern Ukraine. Islamic militants are invading and—by all accounts—massacring thousands of innocents in Iraq. Ebola is ravaging lives in Liberia. Some 150,000 people die each and every day, and that means that since you began reading these words moments ago, almost 100 people have passed away, a full third of them by unnatural means.
Cars pass by. The house is silent. The world continues to spin. Tomorrow, another 150,000 will die. The sun rises on another day.
Each of these horrors identifies experiences with which we are bombarded on a constant basis—each is, objectively, horrifying. We stand on the ground and watch it happen. And yet, to each we respond in markedly different ways. The outpouring of grief over the death of Robin Williams seems disproportionate to the grief warranted by the global atrocities, or even to that of the local horrors. It is fair to ask the question: Why should this be the case?
Let’s consider the three kinds of horror in turn. Let’s call the first horror Hometown Horror. This is the cat, dying in the street. It is the junkie overdosing in your neighborhood. It is the car accident you witnessed. It is the shooting which happened nearby. It the cancer ward of your local hospital. It is the neonatal ICU. These horrors are close to home—they are terrible things to see and witness. They are hard to forget.
The second kind I’ll call Global Horror. These are the news reports, the (endless) Facebook posts, the grainy and uncensored video of atrocities. These are horrors for which you, as a witness, have no particular personal investment—you don’t know where Ukraine is on the map, you can’t identify where Israel ends and Gaza begins, Liberia is part of Africa, right? They are abstracted images which nevertheless evoke our sense of compassion and justice, if we let them.
And let’s call the final kind of horror Imaginary Horror. This is the horror we experience when someone we don’t actually know, but feel that we know, experiences a personal horror. In response we, because we imagine that we know them, imagine that their horror is our own experience. The word “imaginary” here is not meant to diminish the horror—rather it is meant to describe the action by which we enter into the other person’s story.
Why then is it easier to feel grief and horror for the third kind, the Imaginary Horror, than it is for the Global or Hometown varieties? Why does Robin Williams get more grief than the people dying in Syria, Iraq, Ukraine, and Palestine?
First, I think there is a problem of scale, and this is one of the chief things that stands in the way of responding to Global Horrors with appropriate conviction. One man dying is imaginable, while a whole city being destroyed is unimaginable. The number “1” is conceivable—you can wrap your head around the integer of a solitary man, in sadness, taking his life. You cannot wrap your head around 1,000 people dying violently. It is quite simply beyond your capacity (even if you witnessed it firsthand). Practically speaking, there is a cap on the human capacity to take in suffering (thank God).
Second, I think there is a problem of solitude. This is particularly the case with Hometown Horrors. These are starkly solitary. I and my wife alone, and perhaps one or two other drivers, witnessed the death of the cat. We will never know or speak to the other drivers. Nobody else knows what happened. Nobody will remember the event. There is nothing to share about it. And this was only a cat. There is a terrifying solitude to hospital rooms and hospice wards, a debilitating loneliness to the horror of a lost loved one. Nobody can go through that with you, and you are brought abruptly and violently face-to-face with the stark reality of loss.
By contrast, the death of a famous person invites us to grieve and respond in community. You can talk openly with your friends, family members, fellow workers and students about these events. You can share your favorite memories of the individual. Even though you didn’t actually know him or her, you are able to imagine together as if you did. The loss, though real in our emotions, is more manageable because we walk through it together.
Third, and closely attached to the problem of solitude, is that of un-grieved grief. Systematically over the past century we in the West have removed our habits and customs of ceremonial grieving. We no longer mourn for our losses; we don’t wear clothes for mourning; we abbreviate or skip funerals altogether; we expect those who have lost to recuperate quickly. It is as if by ignoring death we hope it will go away. But it seems to me that with the deaths of celebrities we give ourselves permission to grieve. I suspect that we do this because we have allowed our emotional lives to be trained by our media. Film has taught us how to feel, and when our film stars die we show deep outpourings of feeling. They, after all, have been our counselors and friends, interpreting and making sense of the horrors of the world. It is to them that we have turned for comfort when the horrors closer to home loomed large. And so our un-grieved grief at the tragedies and horrors of life are given permission to express themselves when a cinematic icon has died—even more so when the death was tragic and horrible.
Fourth and finally, there is the problem of powerlessness. To witness the violent death of an animal awakens a portion of our human powerlessness—I immediately knew there was nothing I could do. I could only watch. But to stand by the bedside of a sick loved one and acknowledge his or her imminent death evokes a powerlessness that is orders of magnitude higher. In the face of our powerlessness we become anxious and attempt to fix the problems. When this happens we aren’t really trying to help the person, we’re only trying to resolve our own anxiety. We recommend crackpot cures for incurable diseases. We tell people to cheer up and think positively. We ask people to “like” posts as shows of support for global suffering. We share news stories and anecdotes and bad advice. Each is a product generated by our impotence in the teeth of suffering and horror.
It is because we feel so powerless in the face of Hometown Horrors, and so impotent in the face of Global Horrors, that we are eager to grieve the Imaginary Horrors. Our grief—the emotion itself—is something we can do. We can participate, and be part, and share our memories, and talk about suicide prevention, and diagnose mental illness, and remember all the good, and so forth and so on. The Imaginary Horror provides an outlet for us to trick ourselves into thinking we’ve actually done something with our grief.
There is nothing wrong with the experience of Imaginary Horror, but there is something wrong when we pursue, experience, and seek out Imaginary Horrors at the expense of the Hometown and Global varieties. It is easier to feel the grief—and therein lies the trap, because a person who consumes a diet of Imaginary Horrors and ignores those closer to home is himself in the process of becoming a horror. Such a person will grieve for the celebrity but ignore the starving child; she will wallow in sentiment and be bankrupt of real conviction; he will “like” the news story but hate his suffering neighbor. That person is in grave danger of becoming a consumer of horror.
Viktor Frankl once said that “If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering.” If there is significance in human life, in the whole experience of being born, growing, living, aging, and dying, then that significance must find roots in human suffering. Frankl speaks with conviction and authority—he himself was a Holocaust survivor.
How then do we find the meaning in these horrors? What are we to do? Well, to begin we must grieve where grieving is appropriate. The Imaginary Horrors help us here—in our sickness they grant us permission to grieve. The trick is that our grief, our reaction of sadness, must not end there. We must take that grief and apply it closer to home. If I feel sadness for the death of Robin Williams (and I do), how can I apply that sadness into grief for matters closer to home, or matters of global importance? I can begin by reminding myself that, indeed, grief is the appropriate response. I ought to feel sad, and horrified, by the news I read and the stories that are published on social media. To not feel these horrors as the horrors they are is to be callous, empty, inhumane.
Next, we must remember that the barrage of information we get about the world is a based on the illusion of interconnectedness. It is tempting sometimes to think that there are more horrors in the world than ever before, but I don’t think this is the case. We must acknowledge that, in fact, it is a product of our media environment that we are even aware of most of these horrors to begin with. In other words, we are documenting more horrors than ever before, and because we feel more interconnected, these all feel closer than they previously did. To this, I think some balance is in order. We should set times for ourselves to read the news, and set times when we don’t read the news. Our attention must be either equally or more focused on the real, practical world around us than it is on the world as presented to us through the lens of media. Otherwise we will be like Levites on the road to Jericho, checking our cell phones for the latest horrors but missing the wounded man entirely.
Additionally, we must act where it is appropriate to act. There is little or nothing we can do for Imaginary Horrors—they are pure emotion with little useful practical actions. However we must consider careful and appropriate action for Global Horrors. Is there suffering we can alleviate? Can I give money? Can I volunteer? Do I know anyone who is near that location who can give me solid, non-media information? Discern, then act in accordance with wisdom. When it comes to Hometown Horrors our powerlessness is most apparent. There we must also act with the greatest wisdom—there also we will need to be most aware of our anxiety. Ask yourself: Am I trying to fix this problem? Am I trying to fix this person’s grief? Don’t try to fix it unless you’ve been asked to do something. If you are with someone who is grieving, just be with the person. He or she needs your company and friendship more than your solutions. Buy lunch. Bake cookies. Do the dishes. Be available. Don’t try to explain things.
Lastly, because all horrors confront us with our powerlessness, we must take time to experience that powerlessness. This is extremely hard to do. It means silence, and confrontation, and acknowledgement of our own weakness in the face of death, dying, and misery. It may mean tears. It will certainly mean some solitude. But the willed and chosen experience of our own powerlessness is the only way to harmonize the three kinds of horror—to bring them together and reconcile our divided humanity. Only then will be able to grieve, and grieve wisely, and act appropriately—to respond with full and robust humanity to both the cat and the comedian. And, perhaps also, it is the only means through which we will be blessed with real, lasting comfort.