He stood at attention on the side of the road by his car. I passed this stranger not knowing who he was, not knowing if he had any connection to my current reason for driving along this road in a line of vehicles. Our vehicle lights turned on. As you can probably guess by now, those of us in the line were heading to a cemetery to pay our final respects and say goodbye to a loved one. He stood as an anomaly in our fast-paced society where I have witnessed more and more vehicles traveling along their way, stopping impatiently only if they are directly in the path of the funeral procession.
Death is tragic. It’s hard, no matter what we believe about what happens to a person after they breathe his or her last breath. In the days afterwards, we continue to wrestle with the physical emptiness they once occupied in our lives. And yet, in light of recent events I cannot help but feel the finality of death and grief are being twisted.
In recent weeks the world has once again been alerted to the destructiveness of violence and terrorism. “I am Charlie” has become a rallying cry for millions of people to protest the atrocity of the attack on the magazine offices for Charlie Hebdo which resulted in the death of 12 people. This attack led to what has been called the largest march and/or rally in the history of France as people came out to stand in solidarity with those who lost their lives.
It wasn’t long before this huge outpouring of solidarity was called into question by another horror. We still are not certain how many hundreds of women and children have been massacred by Boko Haram in Nigeria. People called into question how the world can stand in solidarity with France when hundreds of people were murdered in the country of Nigeria. How does the loss of 12 compare with the loss of hundreds?
Once again the argument goes, the loss of life and suffering outside the privileged industrial world was being overlooked. While I believe firmly an important point is being made in these arguments, I cannot help but be bothered by what I have noticed as a growing trend when it comes to grief and loss.
The need to compare death.
The need to limit grief.
These tragedies in France and Nigeria are not the first time death has been compared and criticized. Whether it was the death of movie actor Paul Walker or Philip Seymour Hoffman or musician Amy Winehouse, I noticed the outpouring of sympathy and empathy on social media sites was called into question. Those calling these condolences into question posted up articles highlighting the recent loss of military personal arguing they should be the ones who are honored and recognized for their service to country.
What I hope to draw attention to is the strange necessity – perhaps desire is a more appropriate word – we seem to have in comparing deaths and limiting our grief to what we term “appropriate” tragedies. I am convinced what is behind this desire is the unhealthy ingraining more and more of our economics into every aspect of our lives and communities. Wendell Berry writes in his essay, Economy and Pleasure, “The ideal of competition always implies, and in fact requires, that any community must be divided into a class of winners and a class of losers.” Wendell Berry has for decades been prophetically trying to draw our attention to why our economics has subtlety eroded important aspects of our humanity and our communities.
Why do we feel the need to juxtaposition the tragedies of Boko Haram and Charlie Hebdo?
Philip Seymour Hoffman or a military service member?
There doesn’t need to be a winner or loser in these cases. Both the tragedy in France and Nigeria are worthy of our world’s solidarity. Are not both the deaths of an actress/actor and military service member tragic?
I believe we worship a God who unconditionally mourns all of these losses and the emptiness it brings to those who have lost a loved one. Not just those we might be encouraged to commodify as worthy of mourning.
I will never know if that man standing on the side of the road honoring the funeral procession as it passed by knew the person lying in the casket. But, I will never forget the valuable lesson he taught me. Life and death cannot be qualified, nor compared. Death is death. Tragedy is tragedy. Loss of life should always be grieved, honored, and respected regardless of whether the person is somebody known or unknown to us.