Deal W. Hudson
September 1, 1999
Maybe I’m hard-hearted. But, except for rare occasions, I don’t consider feelings newsworthy. I distinctly remember the period during the early ’70s when reporters began interviewing people about their emotional reactions to events rather than about the event itself “How did you feel when the plane burst into flames?” I considered making some form of protest, but like everyone else in the nation, I quietly went along.
Now we hear about nothing else. Spurred on by generations of journalists educated more with psychology than history or politics, the reorientation of this national attention toward feeling and away from fact has multiplied tenfold. Our periodic preoccupation with the deaths of celebrities sadly testifies to our voyeuristic appetite for the trauma of strangers. The media event—from Princess Di to JFK Jr., from Littleton to Atlanta—has become ritualized. Beginning with 24-hour coverage, it slowly morphs into the “bringing of closure.” Like the wedding scene in the traditional romantic comedy of the ’30s, pronouncements of closure provide a happy ending to our grieving. In point of fact, closure really means that we have exhausted our attention span—the show is over.
Media commentator Brent Bozell thinks these fixations stem from the boredom of those who find most of their reality on television. Closure means less the attenuation of grief than the need of the media and its audience to move on rather than face themselves. Closure appears to be about involvement when actually it’s just the opposite. It’s the old escapism wrapped in new garb. The so-called psychological closure is nonsense. Anyone who has had to deal with the serious grief of death and suffering, and its real after-effects, experience it as cyclical rather than linear. The upsets of life do not pass into oblivion, chased away by incantations of closure, but are transposed over the years into a variety of emotional keys. Freud described this as the experience of “repetition.” We constantly relive the past; our success in life depends on our ability to deal with its scars.
Closure is a kind of emotional abortion. In a culture of death, we have grown accustomed to using abortion as contracepting solution to profligate sex. Now we invoke emotional closure to leave behind a momentary superficial infatuation with the suffering of strangers. We cared a lot last week, but now we don’t have to care anymore. We are like the young St. Augustine who cried more at the suffering of actors on the theater stage than his friends in real life. Unlike Augustine, however, we don’t wonder why.
As we sit in front of our televisions listening to the voice of Dan Rather crack, we feel our own grief as a sign of our own deep capacity for compassion. We feel ennobled, even uplifted. We look good in our eyes, especially if they are momentarily filled with tears.
In fact, like the compulsive philanderer, we have been spiritually dumbed down. We have spent ourselves on what is safe and without cost. Now we face what novelist Walker Percy would describe as the problem of re-entering our own, real world: How to turn from the sublimity of grieving for Princess Di to attending to the messy and demanding sorrows of your own aging parents?
One final thought: How many people being interviewed on camera ever sound articulate about their feelings? As many times as news reporters have heard people talk about feeling “great” or “sad” or “upset” you would think they would start digging deeper. It’s one thing to hear a Churchill discuss his passions and quite another to hear the man on the street.
Group hugs are not very interesting as entertainment, but, more importantly, over time they affect what events mean to us. A plane crashes, a madman opens fire at the office, children are drowned by their mother, and the story is about a “community in mourning” or “shock waves of grief and outrage.”
Notice how these versions of the story move attention away from the event itself toward those who merely witness it. And how convenient it will be to announce the time for “closure” when the sameness of reporting becomes boring. Meanwhile, those who truly suffer will be left to cope with a memory that will stay with them forever.