Wednesday, April 22, 2015

On Death and Community


Today was not a good day. Five nursing students from Georgia Southern University (my alma mater) were killed this morning in a traffic crash early this morning commuting approximately an hour away to Savannah, Ga. I didn't know any of them and I'm not sure I know anyone who knew any of them. Yet I'm saddened for the loss of the lives of five students who were studying so they could have a career helping the sick.

So I'm saddened by the loss of life from these students who woke up this morning thinking they had many years ahead of them. I'm more saddened than I would have otherwise been had they been four students from another university or if they were four young people who weren't attending college but instead going to work.

 As best as I can figure, the only reason this crash and these students have me feeling more grief than I otherwise might is the tenuous connection we shared. I was never in school at the same time these students were. At best, we may have been in the same football stadium a time or two watching the Eagles play, but I wouldn't have known them and they wouldn't have know me.

What doe that say about me? Am I so jaded that I only care about a tragedy when it tangentially affects me? Why don't I care as much for the others who tragically lost their life today?

My best guess is that we're wired to feel connection. Take 10 people and split them into a green team and a yellow team and people on the same team will feel a connection to each other even if they didn't know each other beforehand and the teams were chosen at random. This connection to a team probably helped our ancestors as they worked together to try to form societies that worked for the protection and health of the group. Outsiders represented a threat to their survival as they competed for scarce resources, so a sense of connection and belonging ultimately worked to ensure their tribe continued.

But I don't live in a time where outsiders need to be viewed as a threat. As a middle-class American in the 21st century, I have an abundance of resources (more than my fair share). Yet the centuries and centuries of feeling a connection to my group still exists as an innate part of the human experience.

I'm certainly not trying to diminish this feeling and say, either implicitly or explicitly, that the grief so many of my friends feel from this tragedy is unwarranted. That's not the case at all. It's reasonable and natural to feel grief over the loss of people from your group. And clearly losing a close friend or family member is different some losing someone who went to the same school you did more than a decade after I graduated. Instead, I'm hoping I can start feeling more empathy for people who didn't also attend the same college or cheer for the same team or even just share my name. Just because they were not a part of any group I identified with doesn't make their life any less important and their trials and tragedies any less meaningful.
*I've seen some unconfirmed reports that a sixth student died, but haven't seen anything official to that effect. My apologies if got the number incorrect.

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