Family obliterated, audience interested

They were off to a party. The mother, 43, had baked a cake. The two children, 8 and 4, were in the back, well strapped in. But they stood no chance. It was a head-on smash. Somerset police said they had rarely seen anything like it.

Though the benefits of good news may be obvious when it comes to our own lives, they clearly don’t apply when it comes to hearing about others’. There is a peculiar, though undeniable, benefit to be found in exposure to the sufferings of strangers.

This may be because we are all, somewhere within us, uncomfortably sad and disappointed. We harbour, quietly, a lot of darkness. At the same time, we live in societies that ceaselessly promote images of ambition and happiness, of thriving relationships, lucrative careers and successful endeavours, most of which lie painfully out of our reach.

It is the persecutory impact of these images of fulfilment that news of disasters helps to alleviate. The crashes, cancers, explosions and fires, relativise our own failures. Disaster bears within it a broad and helpful message: humanity suffers. It is this moral that our unconscious apprehends and applies to the particulars of our own griefs (which may be nothing graver than the rejection of a business proposal or a slight to our ego dealt out by an enemy). The differences in proportion between our difficulties and the accident victim’s may seem obscene, but they are also (privately) supremely useful. The exaggerated scale of the pain that someone else has to endure serves to put our problems in perspective. We stand to feel a new gratitude for certain basic privileges that we lost sight of in our envious or frustrated moods. Whatever our disappointments, we have not just had a relative die in a car crash, we have so far avoided contracting a fatal virus and our house is still standing. Immersing ourselves in accounts of misfortune can enable us to adopt a more constructive and generous attitude towards ourselves and others. The growth of tolerance and a measure of hope may paradoxically be fed by news of extreme sorrow.