What’s really important?

Yesterday brought us stories about the deaths of cultural icons Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett.  Of course, one story got much more attention than the other.  I suspect that this is because the first story came as a surprise, while the second was expected.  We don’t like a steady dose of misery in our news diet in the US; we want new and different suffering every day.  So one of these people fought and struggled for years, when she passed, there was grief, but not the outpouring that we see on television and on the radio and online for the death that was quick and shocking.

Of course, yesterday brought us many other news stories.  Protests continued in Iran, bombings continued in Iraq, North Korea continued to posture with its nuclear weapons.  People lost their jobs, had asthma attacks, declared bankruptcy, found drugs in their children’s bedrooms.  There were deaths from violence, starvation, AIDS, malaria, pneumonia, and a newfangled strain of influenza.  But somehow, the focus of the US media is almost entirely on these two deaths, and really, only on one.

One of my friends on Friendfeed felt quite bitter about this:

Dear Iranian protesters: Sorry about your dead and dying, but right now, one of our most beloved icons just moonwalked off this mortal coil. Maybe after we’re done watching the wall-to-wall coverage on the “news” networks, we’ll remember what you guys … OMG ANOTHER STATEMENT LATERS. Regards, America.

It is hard to blame him.  How does one weigh on one hand the death of a pop culture icon and on the other hand all of the other wonderful and terrible things that happened on the same day?  How can this one man’s passing affect us more than citizens being cheated of their vote and then beaten for complaining to the government?  How can this make us grieve more than for the people who live every day under the barest shelter, not knowing whether they will have the luxury of food that day?  How can we give so much more of our attention to one artist than to the entire state of California, which is on the verge of insolvency?

Four years ago, in a previous blog, I wrote about a similar experience.  I’d found myself in tears when Dumbledore died in the sixth Harry Potter book, but unable to summon the same grief for the 71 who died in a single attack in Iraq.  I found this incredibly sad: I was grieving the death of a fictional character, a person who had never existed except in the imagination, but could not cry for real, flesh-and-blood people, children of God just as I am.  And I realize that today’s grief is the same.  Only a very few people have ever even met Michael Jackson or Farrah Fawcett, but by watching them on television and buying records or CDs, we’ve brought them into our lives.  The people who die far away — or even the ones who suffer from tragedies closer to home, but whom we have never seen or met before — we don’t know them.  Their suffering and death don’t touch us.  We have to make ourselves care, to make ourselves grieve, to make ourselves angry.

Yes, this is sad.  It really is sin, and the prophets of Israel cried out about it.  The suffering of any person in the world is the suffering of God.  When we cause this suffering, we are hurting God; when we ignore those who suffer, we ignore God.  Jesus said this very explicitly: what you do to anyone, you do to me; what you fail to do for anyone, you fail to do for me.  Of course, the problem is, we’re human.  We’re not perfect, not even close.  It is so hard to hold all of these tragedies in our minds and hearts at the same time.  It is overwhelming.  We feel helpless.  All we can do is cry out and hope that our voices are heard.

Unfortunately, I don’t have any answers.  I have some ideas about why and how this happens, but not really any ideas on how to make it better.  All I can do today is watch and pray.

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