In America, Pain is Up For Grabs

“Up for grabs.” I hate that phrase. Its variant, “Grab and go!” is not any better. The invitation to grab things is, I think, meant to connote ease of access. Possibly it also intends to obfuscate the fact that, unless it is a prize that is “up for grabs,” usually in return for the commodification of your attention, you will also have to pay for the thing you grab. To me, grabbing connotes snatching rapacity. But America is nothing if not rapacious. Of our time, our money. And our pain, if it can be used to grab our attention.


Recently Congress held hearings on the two Boeing 737 Max crashes that killed 346 people. 346 people. That objective number is horrifying. 346. As part of their hearings, they asked Paul Njoroge to testify. He lost his wife, his mother in law, and his 3 children in the Ethiopian airlines crash. Knowing that horrifies me. The fact of that loss is really all I need to know. I’m not sure why Congress needs to hear from him instead of about him in order to investigate Boeing, but I have noticed that it seems to be the American way to want to embody a thing in one person’s experience of it, as if one person’s experience was evidence of something large and important. If one person says it happened to them, and especially if they felt bad, then their bad feeling makes the bad thing worth responding to. Or more real. Or something. For example: There is an opioid crisis, and the news will cover it by honing in on the life of one person. If we can see how she lost custody of her child, how she suffers for her addiction, then we have the evidence we need that (a) addiction is bad; (b) people are suffering; (c) something should be done. But this culture needs to focalize through individual pain to believe. Or maybe individual pain sells ads.


Not only did Mr. Njoroge travel to Washington from Toronto to talk about his lost family, KQED played parts of his testimony on the radio. So I could hear the ages of his very young children and also hear him talk about how he imagines their last minutes, how he knows his wife and mother in law knew they were going to die and he hopes they could comfort the children. How he misses them every day.


Why do we need to hear this private pain? Does the broadcasting of it alleviate it? Justify it? Why does this culture need to spread the horror around, as far as it will go? I can’t shake the feeling the impulse is not humane, is not borne of a desire to help this man feel less alone – anyway how can I presume to know what he is going through? Why do I need the details of his private suffering to know that he is going through it? – but instead is a kind of insatiable voyeuristic frisson, driven by the knowledge that horror puts ears and eyes to public media.


And still, when there is yet another shooting, as in Gilroy this week, I am reminded of how it works, again. We are told it happened, and where, and how many died and were injured, if that number is available.  And then we are taken to a reporter who has rushed to the scene of the crime to find someone who was there, who was close enough to the horror to have lost something, but not close enough to have lost their life, because the dead can’t speak. If they could, I’m fairly sure they’d regularly be on the news, but only if they died in some horrifying way.


Ursula le Guin writes that pain is not interesting. It should not be celebrated as more valuable than joy. Other people’s pain is not interesting. It is horrifying. It should not have a display value. Why does this culture not know that?