Empathy


Like so many times before, I had a massive fight with strangers in downtown New York City.  It happens a lot when I am down there, I stew, sometimes I lash out on twitter.  I never spew my anger aloud, it’s all silent confrontation and rage in my head.  It started shortly after September 11, 2001.  I worked down there, I had to be there, it was my route to commute.  As if it didn’t dominate my thoughts, I had to face it, twice a day for years, literally passing through and under a burial ground in the PATH tunnels at the World Trade Center. 

 

Sometimes being downtown gave me comfort, sometimes fear, always sorrow, and as the tourists started streaming in…it made me increasingly angry.  I’d pass tour groups smiling and giving the peace sign posing for photos.  I wanted to shake these people and make them hurt like I did.  I wanted to smack the vendors selling books with images of destruction, shirts, hats, all sorts of crap.  I would think, this shouldn’t have happened at all, and now it’s a destination, and now you’re here – selling disaster porn souvenirs. 

 

So, tonight I saw a group of visiting servicemen paying their respects.  I don’t know where they were visiting from, I don’t know what branch of the military they serve, but they were having a solemn moment.  And around them people stopped.  Tourists, and likely natives were taking their picture.  It made me furious.  I grappled with people’s right to privacy to mourn and pay homage to the dead without others exploiting it.

 

Then I thought of the pictures that touch me.  Pictures, sometimes of suffering.  Private moments that I probably shouldn’t be privy to.  I believe pictures can change the world, and maybe some of those images may have been at the expense of their subjects.  I also have a sense of joy when I see people taking pictures with willing NYPD and FDNY, I love when heroes are treated like celebrities. 

 

Then again, I’m a New Yorker.  I have a complicated opinion of tourists.  I love the money they bring with them that benefits the city I live in, but dodging the stalled masses on my way to work can be annoying.  Some of my best friends who come to visit me are technically tourists and I relish their joy at seeing the city I live in.  And, I’ve taken many down to the World Trade Center site.  Sometimes they take pictures and I do too.  Often, they cry.  Some of the conversations I’ve had on these trips have given me a sense of peace.  Maybe that is happening when these stranger’s cameras are away and they’ve stopped hamming it up for their memento of being “there”.  I don’t think I’ll ever understand wanting to be in those photos.

 

I also remember, in 1996 I visited a concentration camp.  I didn’t want to, I had a very hard time joining the group of film students I was traveling with.  I thought I knew the history, I honor the dead, I respect their stories, I don’t need to visit a place of torture and horror.  But, I went.  And I needed a moment to sob for people I didn’t know.  I was the stranger there, I was a tourist.  In the end, my visit there turned out to be one of the most unexpected memories of my trip as one of my professors joined me, and told me his story.  His mother was a political prisoner there, she was pregnant with him at the time.  I sobbed some more.  I listened to his story and we had a private moment as he walked with me through the museum and showed me each panel as though he was showing me a private photo album.  He wanted us there, he was grateful to share this place with us and every class he brought there.  He encouraged us to take pictures, and I did.  He extended our photography lessons in that place, he didn’t just want us to take snapshots, he wanted us to make them beautiful.

 

I’ve been thinking a lot about celebrating death these days.  I watched Whitney Houston’s funeral on tv and had a long conversation with a friend that day about how we eulogize.  I have a favorite clip on youtube and it’s at someone’s funeral.  Somebody I didn’t know, someone who was clearly loved and I am grateful that someone shared that moment, and it made me think – I want that joy to erupt when I go.  It’s a gorgeous tribute, you should watch it.

 

 

 

I can’t think of anything worse than having my own grieving made public, those moments when you are so completely lost and raw.  But, I have.  I have poured my heart out freely on my podcast about many different kinds of losses and on 9/11 itself, I’ve sent words of encouragement to family on the anniversary of someone’s death on facebook.  We eulogize, that’s what we do.  And sometimes the way we do it doesn’t work for everyone.  Maybe that is what happens in that moment I catch walking by.  I don’t know the whole story, I don’t know their stories or the context of their pilgrimage.

 

But, I also think of the survivors and their families who might need a private moment and instead have people capturing their misery.  I suppose that’s why I leave this city every year on the anniversary and over time I’ve learned my own boundaries of what I share publicly, I tend to hold the most delicate things the most private.  I had to determine that for myself.  I guess at the heart of it is the sense that by living here, I have to share that and cede that control and sometimes it just feels like people visiting have no regard for that.

 

Gosh, I didn’t intend for this to be so long winded, but I guess I’m realizing it’s complicated and something I always see as unforgivable might actually be something else.