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Jewish World Review Feb. 10, 2003/ 8 Adar I, 5763

Kathleen Parker

Kathleen Parker
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Feeling is lost in sensitivity sweepstakes | The numbness that passeth all understanding returned as death and debris rained down in the hours following the Columbia shuttle explosion. It wasn't so much the numbness of tragedy or sorrow, but of inundation and sensory saturation.

We're all familiar with the human grief cycle originally described by Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, the Swiss psychologist who noted a pattern among people dying of terminal illness: shock, denial, anger, bargaining, grieving and acceptance.

Today, as mass media have popularized tragedy, we have all become terminal patients trapped in a communal cycle of sorrow. Which fact begs addition of another stage to the cycle: ennui.

As in Oh, no, not another endless week of numbing, non-stop, repetitive, grindingly emotional media coverage. The healing phase of acceptance has been usurped by simple relief as the media deluge finally runs dry.

I've read here and there the observation that the Columbia explosion didn't quite measure up to the horror and sorrow of the Challenger. Our obsession with quantifying all things, even tragedy, has produced the following as conventional wisdom: We have become inured owing to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

In other words, our shock, pain and anger were so immense that any subsequent event is unlikely to be as jarring. No less tragic, mind you, just less evocative of emotion.

I'm not so sure. September's events and our subsequent girding of loins for whatever battles lie ahead may have caused a shift in our expectations. The prospect of body bags perhaps has made us more serious. The difficulties of a wildly fluctuating market and the economic trickle-down effect may have made us less optimistic.

But the numbness of which I am aware as I press the "mute" button is born of something else, which is the incessant cultural demand for feeling and sensitivity. One can only evoke so much.

From television tell-alls to human-resource sessions on gender awareness and diversity training, we've made sensitivity tantamount to virtue. Be nice, we're told. Which we might, were we not told so often. Meanwhile, in a climate where irreverence is viewed as hostility, sensitive folks vie for sensitivity superiority.

Take this headline from last Sunday's Washington Post: "Shuttle Tragedy Is Felt Especially Keenly by Members of the Region's Indian, Israeli, Black Communities." Oh, really? Let me guess. Because the Columbia crew included a black, an Indian and an Israeli, these ethnic groups suffer most?

The me-more bug has infiltrated the Internet where some Web-site visitors debate the ethnic heritage of Christa McAuliffe, the teacher-astronaut who died in the Challenger accident. She may have been Arab, some say. Suggesting, one supposes, that those Arabs who were reportedly celebrating the shuttle explosion were frittering away an opportunity to be co-victims.

Why, they had a stab at the sensitivity sweepstakes and squandered it! To which, I suspect, McAuliffe would reply: "What's wrong with you people? I was an American."

None of this commentary should be construed as insensitivity to the pain of others, by the way. I have enormous respect and empathy for real pain, loss and sorrow -- all of which deserve to be managed in private. No one would deny the astronauts' families, friends, neighbors and co-workers their legitimate share of grief.

But all-news television -- translation: All-Tragedy TV -- has made such private suffering nearly impossible. Not only are genuine victims forced to display their hearts, but bystanders are commanded to "feel their pain." Once a presidential prerogative, now a national mandate.

It is true that we can turn off the TV, and we do. No one forces us to watch, though anyone who has tried to escape the omnipresent media knows it is nearly impossible. Televisions perch and prattle nearly everywhere one goes. At least newspapers rest unobtrusively, content to be ignored, until engaged by a willing reader.

But regardless of the degree to which one successfully insulates oneself from the onslaught, the effect of a mass culture addicted to group revelation and shared tragedy remains the same. The mandate to "feel" everything eventually makes it impossible to feel anything.

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