Shocked, but not surprised

The Modimolle monster, weather disasters, ships' captains behaving appallingly: we have heard similar stories a hundred times, yet we still manage to be surprised every single time. It's quite touching, says Susan Erasmus.

A new day, a new disaster – and we can't seem to get enough of it.

We lurch from one shocking occurrence to the next, shaking our heads in dismay at the collective ills that have befallen mankind. As I said, it is touching.

Before I get sentimental in a nauseating Extreme-Home-Makeover  sort of way, let's look at are four possible reasons for this reaction of ours:

  • we have poor memories
  • we are not as media junked-out as we think
  • we just absolutely love sensation
  • we are generally hugely compassionate beings who really feel the pain of all other people

Call me cynical, but I think we can immediately dispense with number four.  Yes, on a certain level we are all connected and we do feel each other's pain, but I do think that is mostly true only for the people closest to us.

If I went into a mental decline every time I read about something grim that has happened to a stranger, I would not be able to function at all. I would never come to work, never get out of bed, never answer the telephone. I would be completely spaced out on whatever medication I could lay my hands on – legal or not so legal. Clearly this is not a tickable option.

So let's look at the other three.

Short memories.Yes, we do have poor memories. There were floods last year in northern SA (there always seem to be in January), a massive heat wave hit Cape Town more or less at the same time, murders and family disasters feature more or less daily on our news pages, and whenever a ship or a ferry sinks, the captain and the crew seem to be on the first lifeboat out of there even before Happy Hour is over.

Yet we gasp collectively in horror when a few months months later we have a repeat performance.

Right, it's this year's disaster, and this year's table topic, so it's current. But we shouldn't pretend that  we haven't been there before.

Media-junked out.  If you have a TV, a radio, read the newspaper, or surf the net, you are punch-drunk from hearing bad news. But we all seem to have a speedy recovery rate – and then we are ready for more.  Preferably bigger, more disastrous and with a higher death count than before. Which gets me to the next point.

We love sensation. We seem to love our diet of disasters, and devour the details with enthusiasm. I just hope that we don't need it to be a little more earth-shattering every time as our palates become jaded.

And when it comes to people and their doings, anything that makes us gasp will do. Whatever it is, all we need to do is to be able to ask "How can anyone do something like that?" And we are satisfied. By identifying the evil, the morally bankrupt, and the shirkers among us, we feel we are set apart. We can get onto a collective moral high horse and feel better about ourselves.

(Just an aside – I have no idea how I would react if I were the captain of a sinking ship. Maybe I would abandon everyone and head for the shore, but what I do know is that I would not claim to have slipped on the deck and fallen into a lifeboat, which is what our Italian captain did. People out there may be sensation-hungry, but I know they're not dof enough to fall for that one.)

Point is, we live on a precarious planet, people can be astonishingly cruel, and not everyone thinks of others before they think of themselves.

But all is not lost, if former Archbishop Desmond Tutu can be believed: he has objected to the "Modimolle monster" being called that. To summarise, he says this man might be a saint on a sharp learning curve. Saint, my a%&$.

Right.  Next time there are floods and heat waves in January, some ex-husband goes completely ape, or another captain abandons ship, be shocked by all means. You are entitled to that. But do spare me the surprise.

(Susan Erasmus, January 2011) 

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