Why grieve for others when there is sobbing at home?
The sentiment at the heart of this query about apparently misdirected grief may be summed up, roughly, as follows: we should reserve our expressions of sorrow for where they are most appropriately directed, at matters closer to heart and home. Our sympathy is scarce; there is much need for it here, close by; it is inappropriate and wasteful to direct it elsewhere. It might even be an expression of insincerity, of a certain kind of bad faith, evidence of a flaw in our affective responses to others: you do not have grief for those closest to you, but plenty for others? (This is certainly how the quote is deployed in Amis’ referring to a story told by Kingsley Amis in his Memoirs about how reports in Pravda about Joseph Stalin‘s complaints, “in person,” to the United Nations about the treatment of Greek communist prisoners at the end of the civil war evoked “hysterical laughter” among gulag prisoners; their state bore ample testimony to Stalin’s malignant hypocrisy.)
But we can offer a contestation of such a view of the act of grieving for others even as ‘there is sobbing at home.’ Perhaps we grieve for others precisely because we have born witness to such sobbing; perhaps we can direct our grief elsewhere because the grieving ‘at home’ has reminded us of the ubiquitousness of grief, that no one is immune to it, that sorrow comes to all, and leaves no one untouched. We might have once viewed the sorrow of others as a distant vision, a visitor unlikely to come knocking at our door; the ‘sobbing at home’ tells us that such smugness is unwarranted.
It might be too that we can grieve for others because we have participated in the sobbing at home and learned how to grieve. Perhaps our sobbing at home has made it possible for us to become more sympathetic and empathetic alike. Grieving might not be instinctive; we need to be inculcated in its ways and means, and what better venue for such education than our most intimate and personal of spaces?
I have made note here previously of the appropriateness of grieving over the passing of ‘perfect strangers,’ people–like celebrities and other public figures–with whom we did not enjoy a personal relationship; there our expressions of grief were evoked by the felt resonances of the occasion of someone’s passing with components of our own emotional make-up–“memories accumulated over a lifetime, traces of experiences, formative and supposedly insignificant alike.” I’d concluded then that “To ask that we confine our expressions of sympathy and sorrow to only those we know personally is indeed, not just ignorant, but also morally dangerous; it bids us narrow our circle of concern.” That same conclusion holds true here too. We should, when we can, grieve for others even when there is sobbing at home.