About four years ago, when I was still a sophomore in high school and UCSB was merely a speck on the horizon, a girl in my class died of cancer. It was a slow death (as death by cancer often is) interspersed with surgery and rounds of chemotherapy that proved ultimately insufficient in the face of such a resilient disease.

Needless to say, it was a devastating blow to her friends, her family and the ones who knew her best. I didn’t know her myself, but I’m sure that if I had, I would have felt at least a fraction of the grief I witnessed in those around me.

But I didn’t.

I certainly wasn’t glad that she had died, but I didn’t feel the need to grieve, either. She and I attended the same high school, were roughly the same age and probably had a few of the same teachers, but the similarities ended there.

We never had a class together, shared a conversation or even exchanged a glance. We were, by the textbook definition of the word, strangers to one another. So while I quietly acknowledged the reality of her death, my reaction ended there.

In the days following her death, I was startled by how many of my peers mourned. These were people who knew her about as well as I did (in other words, not at all), yet grieved for her as though they had been close friends, or even members of her family. They shared long-winded eulogies and comments about her life, her impact and the lessons they had learned from her story.

Dozens of people made such remarks. I can give you such a specific estimate because all of them posted their comments on Facebook.

We hear a lot these days about the interconnectivity arising from social networking — the accessibility of information, the transcendence of language and culture. What we hear less about, however, are the drawbacks.

This event illustrated the fact that while social networks enhance our ability to communicate with one another, they diminish the quality of our communication. When it takes just the click of a button to broadcast our opinions to the world, we take less time to think about what we’re actually saying. And in some situations — like the one I just described — we say things we don’t really mean at all.

I don’t think my peers meant to be insincere, but they were. That’s an accusation I wasn’t brave enough to levy at the time; I was too afraid of isolating myself with an unpopular opinion, of being labeled as “crass” or “insensitive” or even “heartless.” Because it’s easy to feel that way yourself when someone dies and you discover that you don’t really care. 99.9 percent of the people in this world will remain strangers to us from the moment they are born to the moment they die, and thus their deaths will be totally inconsequential to us.

This can be an unsettling realization and is undoubtedly how many of my peers must have felt. It was because of this latent guilt — this dissonance between what they expected to feel and what they actually felt — that they shared their condolences on Facebook.

The ensuing avalanche of insincere remarks was due, then, to a sort of snowball effect. As soon as one person expressed their grief, others felt pressured to do the same. No one wanted to stand on the emotionally unpopular side of things, and the scramble that followed was inevitable. It’s with this same win-or-lose mentality that stock brokers invest in companies and scabs break picket lines in strikes.

Of course, this is no way to treat a 15-year-old girl’s death, but the ego often fails to perceive such distinctions. Self-preservation blots out everything else, even an awareness of itself.

The point is we constantly seek approval from those around us. Whether we mean to or not, we latch onto tragic events that have little or nothing to do with us and use them as opportunities to demonstrate our sensitivity. It’s why we still hold annual memorials on the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, a tragedy that happened a lifetime ago. It’s why your dad watches a story about civilian casualties in Baghdad on the six o’clock evening news and says “Wow, that’s terrible,” and then goes right back to eating his mashed potatoes. And it’s why, with the advent of Facebook and other online discussion forums, so many of us end up publicly mourning things that cause us no real grief.

We would rather be insincere than respectfully silent. We would rather treat tragedy as a soapbox to stand on, broadcasting our personal image, than come to terms with the fact that in some cases, it just isn’t our business.

We’re insensitive. Apathetic. Emotionally vacant. And we passionately resist these things because society tells us to.

I’m not saying you should embrace these things, either. I’m not advocating nihilism or telling you to go home and decorate your bedroom with human skulls. I’m simply asking you to be realistic when it comes to your emotions and to avoid being misdirected by social expectations or values. Pretending to care is worse than not caring at all, and if that makes me insensitive, well … see if I care.

Mark Strong … with a last name like that, did you expect him to be a crier?


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