Friday, March 24, 2006

Vicarious Joy

The event most responsible for snapping me out of the state of paralysis I’ve been in was the local breaking-news story on Tuesday that transmogrified a local tragedy-in-process into a joyous miracle that has since made national headlines and created a media frenzy. I had been following the story of the missing Ashland family with great heaviness of heart. The Higginbothims and Stivers--six members of three generations of one family had left in an RV for an overnight camping trip to the coast the first weekend of March, the weekend that major winter storm hit all the passes surrounding our Rogue River Valley, dumping snow and ice and blasting the higher altitudes with hurricane strength winds. Two children, their parents and their grandparents disappeared. Last weekend, after two weeks of intensive searching had garnered no sign of them, the search was called off and my heavy heart sank even further. I did not know this family and yet I was haunted by the images of those two children’s faces and the face of their anxious and grieving grandmother waiting in her Ashland home for news. My mother-in-law, who works at a motel in Ashland, told me of her co-worker’s concern for her own young daughter, distraught over her close friend’s disappearance. This reminded me that there were numerous such connections from peripheral to intimate that weave individuals into a community--from blood-relatives to best friends, from teachers to preachers, from store clerks to librarians, from doctors to garage mechanics, from classmates to co-workers--my heart was breaking for all of them. Six members of an extended family cannot be surgically removed from a community without leaving behind a festering wound.

After two weeks of them, I had gotten used to the frequent news-breaks and news-teasers for the five o’clock and eleven o’clock news programs that mentioned the missing family’s name and flashed pictures of them on the screen--the same handful of still shots and a few frames of a video of the children’s grandmother waiting anxiously at home. I had stopped expecting any actual news--as in new information--so I only half listened and seldom glanced at the screen for these interruptions in my regularly scheduled programs. So I almost missed the significance of the breaking news story that was delaying the start of Oprah on Tuesday. I was only looking at the screen because I was checking out the quality of the picture to see if Oprah was even going to be worth watching that day. Before I heard the announcers words and registered them, I noticed that the video shot of the grandmother was different--different angle, different configuration of faces surrounding her--and then the roomful of people erupted from their chairs and collided in a group hug. Only then did I register the announcers voice explaining that KDRV’s cameras and news crew had been present, conducting an interview, when the news reached the family that morning that their loved ones had been found and all six were safe and sound. My heart burst into galloping beats and my eyes welled with tears. It felt much like a panic attack but I realized that what I was experiencing was a profound emotional rapture as my heart was lifted out of despair into hope, out of sorrow into joy.

Briefly I wondered why it seemed so much easier for me to experience the emotions of others vicariously than to experience my own. But then I realized that vicarious emotion was just empathy by another name and I knew that empathy was rooted in ones ability to translate one’s own emotional reaction to events onto another, to recognize that ‘my’ pain and ‘your’ pain are the same. Thus, no one ever experiences a vicarious emotion that they have not experienced for themselves at least once. As the evening wore on and the emotional glow I felt did not wear off, I realized that the joy I was feeling had come full circle. It was no longer simply vicarious joy, it was pure and simply my own joy and it trailed veils of hope and infused me with an energy I have not felt since last summer--since before Katrina and the three personal grief-whammies I was hit with between
late September and early December. I feel like I am waking up and for the first time in six months I feel like awake is where I want to be.

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