Chacos column: Suffering and the paradox of my morbid curiosity
Recently I was waiting at the airport to board a flight and I spotted this family immediately. They were struggling to locate their boarding passes. Then their luggage was far too large for today’s carry-on requirements, and when the mom spun around waving wildly to the gate agent, her papers went flying everywhere like confetti in a bad parade. They were indeed a raging mess. I couldn’t help but wonder how they got this far through life, or more specifically, even just through the airport to the correct departing gate. Most disconcerting to me, however, was why I enjoyed watching them flounder so much.
Psychology tells us that we’re paradoxically drawn to uncomfortable, repulsive things. So as I continued to stare at this struggling family at the airport gate, I reassured myself that I wasn’t the only one sadistically enjoying their show. Finding kindred spirits brave enough to admit this is uncommon, but a few sideways glances from strangers told me I wasn’t alone. We’re all generally fascinated by the morbid. Only a few of us can admit it openly, though.
I was overly relieved at my modicum of empathy as my first instinct was to help this family navigate what appeared to be a stressful moment. I quickly recalled with a shiver the times I struggled flying with three little ones alone. I can now efficiently deal with a blowout, barf or a bloody nose unphased. Quite frankly, other seasoned parents will eagerly tell you the same as we readily jump in to help when we spot a rookie flailing about.
My kindness toward this family was nominal, though. I let them cut me in line and smiled to show my compassion even though I turned to give my children a stern look clearly stating that losing a boarding pass was a massive, unacceptable fau––x pas. When our flight was further delayed because the same family was making a loud scene toward the front of the plane, I had to stand up just to get a better look. At this point, I was gaping at their unfolding disaster. What was going on with me?
As the drama continued up front, I became frustrated. First it was because this family was holding up my vacation. Then as I compared my family’s efficiency to their circus, I began to feel ridiculous because I was being self-congratulatory and pretty righteous. I was exploiting their suffering for my own organizational lesson and gratification. And by the time we took off, I was thoroughly pissed off at my seemingly juvenile behavior.
Once I settled down, I acknowledged that their misery allowed me to look at the things I wanted to avoid in the future. I forced myself to see past the situation and into what this exhausted, stressed, confused and probably overwhelmed mother must be feeling. Alas, my humanity kicked in and finally overshadowed my impulsive, unconscious morbid curiosity.
When our flight finally landed, I couldn’t help but stare at all the television screens spewing the latest “news.” I wanted to know if I missed something gruesome, some epic presidential blunder, or someone doing something scandalous. If so, I knew I’d have to see it, hear about it in detail and talk about it. I told myself it was so I didn’t look ignorant around my peers, but that’s not really it at all.
I’m convinced I seek out the gritty information about a plane crash, a shooting or the latest flood so there’s an extreme touchstone to go to when I need a gut check. It’s my way of getting in a close encounter with mortality without actually being put at risk. Those tabloid, trashy magazines I love so much are indeed displayed perfectly at the grocery checkout area for quick purchase. Sure, I’ll indulge if it’s set in front of me, but I won’t seek it out in a random aisle to buy one.
The other extreme touchstone for me is acknowledging my morbid tendencies and allowing the dark to seep inside for just a little bit. Feelings of guilt and shame spring up quickly for capitalizing on someone else’s suffering, but that motivates me to reflect deeply and adapt along the way. I trust in the empathy that ultimately follows that brings me lots of needed light to do the right thing. I have to believe in this dichotomy if I want to transform my life’s necessary darkness into something positive, bright and shiny around me.
I told myself watching that mom struggle at the airport was a great lesson for me. I reminded my kids that there’s protocol in flying, and it’s best to learn it early and well. If not, they would have to walk around the airport with their boarding passes stapled to their shirts. The stress this family endured may have saved my kids from some unnecessary embarrassment the next time we head to the airport.
Andrea Chacos lives in Carbondale, balancing work and happily raising three children with her husband. She strives to dodge curveballs life likes to throw with a bit of passion, humor and some flair.