Friday, January 29, 2016

Challenging Empathy: 30 years on ...

I was reminded today that this week is 30 years on from the Challenger disaster.


I've previously talked about the disaster itself.  It was an odd moment in history - like the Kennedy assassination or September 11th, everyone who was alive seems to know where they were on that night, and their thoughts and feelings.

It's my own tale I want to spend some time going through, as it links to some recent posts of mine.  I was 15, and remember my head full of revision for an upcoming physics test on radiation, when I saw the fateful footage of the Challenger.

I seemed to spend the whole night channel hopping for news and theories.  I'd known about the plan to send the first teacher into space ... we'd heard how safe and reliable the shuttle was ... were there any survivors (for a few moments there was a parachute spotted which confused everyone and gave people false hope).

It was memorable for me, because it was the penultimate time that I did a childhood tradition we probably all have had.  I couldn't sleep, so I went into my parents room to get into bed with them.


I told my parents that I just could not get them out of my head.  It upset me, but also confused me a bit.  The news was always full of terrible things - children being abducted and murdered, natural disasters, planes shot down.  But this really got to me.

The disaster is memorable for the words my mother used to explain why I was feeling that way.  I was a kid with  my head filled with space and science fiction.  Those astronauts were everything I wanted and sought to be, and that made me empathise closely with them.  They were people very much like me, doing something I desperately wanted to follow in their footsteps.  Though I didn't know them that well, it made it feel incredibly personal and scary because I saw so much of myself in them.

It's a comment I use mentally all the time to explain the world around me.  We see terrible things in the news all the time - and often it's not the numbers of people affected or killed which will get to us, but the personal tales which remind us how close the victims are to us.  That is why we change the colour of our Facebook photo after a terrorist attack in Paris, and yet seem blase about attacks elsewhere in the world where many more people die.  We see more of ourselves in the Parisian victims.

On the 30th anniversary, I'm reminded that the challenge with empathy is sometimes we need to spread it a bit wider.  To not just put ourselves in the shoes of people like us, but wherever we can, to put ourselves in the shoes of people a little different.


For those of you wondering ... I said that was the penultimate time I had to get into bed with my parents.  So when was the last time?  Would you believe it was when I was 27 ...

I'd just driven back to my home where my parents were waiting for me late one night in 1998.  I got in - after 5 days in hospital, my son had finally been born.  When I announced this, the huge enormity of it seems to hit me, and I went very cold and faint and into a state of shock.  So my dad came into bed with me that night to make sure I was okay.  It was much appreciated.

[Too cute a story not to tell]

2 comments:

  1. You definitely have shown us a silver lining of tragic events. I've wondered if as humans we are wired to withstand so much bad news in the world, now that it is easier to identify with people half a world away. But it's true we can do some good with empathy and offering comfort to others.

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