Many years ago as a young college student I was kvetching with a professor about rubberneckers. If you’re not familiar with the concept, rubbernecking is the act of stopping – in the middle of rush hour traffic – to look at a nearby accident. Rubbernecking is responsible for many traffic jams. My point to this professor was that rubbernecking was an example of the worst part of our human nature, the base parts of our nature, a part of our nature that causes draws up toward the most macabre moment of other people’s lives. The professor made the point that, instead, rubbernecking actually proves our humanity. In her mind rubbernecking signified our inability to witness other people’s tragedies and simply look away. How could a decent person look at an accident and not want to know more, not want to look further?
I have been contemplating her words for the better part of a decade. I have had many an opportunity, sitting in a traffic jam caused by rubbernecking, to debate the source and value of our obsession with other people’s tragedies.
It was this idea – that our humanity calls us to witness and invest ourselves in other people’s tragedies – that spring to mind when I read this article honestly about Amanda Berry. I kept thinking about it until my husband turned to me last night and asked, with some sadness and tragedy-fatigue in his face, “Is this story going to be with us forever. Are we going to be talking about these girls forever?”
And by that time, I had my answer: Probably. Elizabeth Smart’s novel won’t be released for months and yet I’m already seeing article after article discussing it. Jaycee Dugard’s story has been referenced again and again in articles about the 3 Cleveland abductees. I would guess that the stories of the Cleveland women will be on our tongues for a long while.
So what is the implication of what Emily Bazelon calls “our morbid fascination”? And in the context of this blog, what does is mean for us as Jews? I have worked in many office environments and I can say with absolute certainty that the synagogue office takes the cake with regards to involvement in each other’s personal lives. News, whether it be good or bad, rides a fast horse around our small Jewish community. I suspect this does not make us unique amongst synagogues or even religious institutions as a whole. But still, it begs the question, what is the implication of this for our Jewish community?
I see the ugly side with some frequency, when sharing becomes over-sharing and over-sharing becomes gossip. But mostly, I would like to believe my professor, that it’s the best of our nature that calls us to not simply witness each other’s tragedies, but to dwell within these difficult times. I suppose my opinion hinges on what follows. It is perhaps just as easy to see something horrible and to either tap the breaks to get a better look OR to press on the accelerator and speed away. The hard work comes later when we have to really be there for each other. It is, I think, how we help each other pick up the pieces following a tragedy that says the most about our humanity.