Every day, I choose to get up and take my child to school; I drive her there and pick her up. I buy food at the grocery store. I garden; I have seen multiple snakes; I know that there are poisonous snakes in my area. I know people who have been bitten by them. I know people who have had car accidents; I know that there are dangers in schools. I know that sometimes food is contaminated. If I really thought about all of these things all the time, I wouldn't want to go anywhere or do anything. Life is fragile. As more and more of my former high school class mates become ill or die (we're just in our late forties people!), I am forced to confront this fact more often. But to live my daily life, I push that aspect of life out of my head most of the time. I can't spend all my mental energy thinking about the bad things that could happen. And to be mentally healthy, I probably shouldn't. We have to focus on the positive aspects of life.
But for each of us, somewhere deep inside (closer to the surface if you have children) there is that niggling knowledge, Life is fragile. It could end any time. Even if we remain healthy, other bad things could happen. I know people who have lost their jobs, lost their houses, lost their marriages. But I really would rather not think that those bad things could happen to me. I would like to think that my story has a happy ending. (How? There's only one door out, I know...still modern people are good at shoving all that aside)
The me I wish I was believes that the best way to handle all of these fears and possibilities is to acknowledge them and to love every minute I have with my family, every flower on every tree, the impossibly short existence of every butterfly until it flutters from flower to ground, the wet nose of the dog on the back of my neck. On my better days I would like to be like Maude from Harold and Maude (and no not the part where she commits suicide...I'm only 46 anyway): I would like to simply be alive while I am alive and let the rest go. But the me that actually knows what I should do isn't always the me that's in charge.
And so I worry about things. And worry and fear lead to a lack of compassion and open the door for superstition to start creeping in. I look at other people's misfortunes and instead of simply feeling compassion for them, I begin to quietly wonder how I can prevent such a thing from happening to me. How can I make sure that I don't get into a traffic accident; how can I make sure my child is safe at school; how can I make sure that I don't have medical bills that bankrupt me; how can I make sure that I have enough money to prevent going into foreclosure if I lose my job? What is the harm in asking these questions in the face of a tragedy? On one level, nothing at all. If there are numerous traffic accidents in my town at a certain intersection then I will be careful there. I might also demand that the city planners rethink the intersection. If there is a school shooting tragedy, there is no reason that we can't all try to figure out what went wrong and try to prevent it from happening again.
However, there are two problems with such questions and both of them are caused by fear. The first problem is that we can take the focus off the person experiencing the misfortune and turn it to ourselves. If my friend's child has an accident shortly after learning to drive, it's no longer helping her or her child if I begin to worry about how I am going to prevent my own child from having an accident. Was her child driving at night? Did she have enough training? Was her mother too permissive? None of these thoughts leaves the focus on the victim.
Now we begin to move into problem number two. Not only have I taken the focus off my friend, I am beginning to judge her. I want to find fault with her somehow because it is reassuring to me. She bought her daughter a sports car. It was too fast and too powerful. Of course, a teenager will drive too fast in a sports car. Or maybe her daughter turned into oncoming traffic. She wasn't paying attention. Maybe she was texting and driving. Maybe she was fooling with the radio. I really want to know that someone is to blame because then I can relax about my own child. My child will pay attention; she won't text; I can't afford to buy her a sports car. There is a subtle shift caused by the fear. I am actually shutting down my empathy because I don't to acknowledge that something like this could happen to me. I need to find some way to reassure myself that this act is not random; that this terrible thing cannot happen to me. I need someone to blame or at least to reassure myself that I have the skills or the money or some other factor that will let me know that I don't have to worry about this. I cannot fully empathize because fully empathy would require me to feel that such a thing could happen to me.
And at some point Fear hardens into Superstition. It becomes necessary to sacrifice compassion to assuage our fears. In our need to convince ourselves of our continuing good fortune we have to blame the victim. We have to reassure ourselves that this unpleasant circumstance will not happen to us because we are more virtuous, or smarter, or work harder, or are better parents. To return to the example of Claudius Pulcher, we need to believe that the unlucky have offended the gods and that their misfortune is the proof.
I think this is a problem not simply on the personal level but also on the level of society as well. More later.