Fascinating air crash news carries unexpected risks

It’s a fascinating story: a clear blue day, a brand new Boeing 777, an experienced crew. Then mayhem. You could spend all day on this.

But you know it wouldn’t be a good idea. Sometimes the disasters of others prompts us to focus on our own neglected priorities, but after a while, these stories also risk distracting us from our deeper concerns. The scale, colour and immediacy of disasters, especially involving planes, gives them the power to elbow themselves to the forefront of our consciousness, where they insistently squat, demanding updates every ten minutes (which most news outlets duly obliges us with), thereby obscuring the call of all those far quieter yet for us far more consequential worries that we might need to face within ourselves. When a plane has just crashed at San Francisco airport, we may reflexively start to respond in the manner of an air accident investigator or a panicked relative, rather than remember that this is not in fact really any of our business – and that we ought more fairly to be spending the day looking within, trying to interpret those faint pulses of anxiety upon which the effective management of our selves depends.

A balanced life requires a curious combination of inner and outer concern: we have to internalise the general message that emerges from others’ accidents – that we are highly fragile and temporary – without, however, getting so deeply immersed in their particulars that we 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 remain numb. 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 not everything that happens out there in the troubled world is really our business.