Doomed Malaysian plane is not your business

No one doubts it is an exciting story, and a poignant one too. A clear blue day, a reliable Boeing 777, an experienced crew. Then, nothing. You could spend all day on this and indeed you have been back repeatedly. You followed the story on the evening news, you caught up with it again on a number of websites, you’ve been thinking about it in the bath and on the way to work. You’ve brought it up with friends. You have a few secret theories you haven’t discussed with anyone (perhaps it landed somewhere in the jungle and there are survivors).

It’s admirable how ready we are to get involved in the disasters of others; how much their pain can touch us. We imagine if it had been our relatives on board or what we might have felt when, strapped into our seats, we had the brief realisation that disaster had struck.

It is their relatives, not yours

But after a while, such stories also risk playing a less helpful role in our lives. The scale, colour and immediacy of disasters, especially involving wide-bodied planes, gives them the power to elbow themselves to the forefront of our consciousness, where they insistently squat, demanding updates every ten minutes (which news outlets duly oblige us with), and obscuring the call of all those far quieter yet for us far more consequential worries which we need to face within ourselves. When a plane has just vanished from the radar screens, we may reflexively start to respond in the manner of an air accident investigator or a panicked relative in a Beijing hotel, rather than remembering that there is nothing ultimately at stake for us here – and that we ought more fairly to be spending our time looking within, trying to interpret those faint pulses of anxiety upon which the effective management of our selves depends. That way, we stand to avoid – if not disaster – then at least running our lives slowly into the sands.

A balanced life requires a curious combination of concern for and indifference to the news: it is an admirable achievement to step out of ourselves and be capable of empathy with others’ catastrophes, but we also need to ensure that we don’t allow the disasters of strangers to become excuses or means by which we avoid our responsibilities to ourselves. We must both register and yet at the same time not fixate upon the sadness and pain with which the news seeks to confront us at every turn.

We are so used to equating being human with the simple act of feeling that we are apt to lose sight of what a necessary achievement it is occasionally to be able to remain numb to what the news has to tell us. Such are the limits of our own concentration and emotional resources, having a serious and appropriate concern for ourselves and the handful of people who deeply depend upon us must frequently involve a calculated restriction of sympathy for, and interest in, others – a due recognition, in other words, that (despite what the news insists, for its own commercial reasons) not everything that happens out there over the Vietnam sea and the Malay hills can or should be our business.