Friday, 1 April 2011


If you hadn't noticed, I've been reading the Niebelungenlied, which is an epic poem of the middle ages. Something that has always struck me as a little odd about literature from this period, is the way the characters' emotional responses seem blown out of proportion. For example, when hearing of Siegfried's death, all 1100 knights join Kriemhild and her ladies in weeping in the hall, something which I mockingly referred to as a "group therapy session". Kriemhild mourns the loss of Siegfried intensely, bawling her eyes out every day for three years.

In medieval epic tales, wars can be started for love, a few bad words can lead to murder, and everyone just seems larger than life. Verses upon verses are devoted to detailing the purity of the good, and verses upon verses are devoted to detailing the dark souls of the evil.

Now, most people (logical, rational people) would tell you that this is just storytelling. Exaggeration for the sake of story. But, what if--what if--people really did feel with greater intensity back then?

Yeah yeah, roll your eyes at me. Yet another lecture about desensitization in modern culture. But think  about it. Right now, we have around 20,000 dead in japan after the March 11 tsumami, and hundreds of thousands homeless. Not only that, but it is becoming increasingly apparent that many on the island are in danger of radiation poisoning due to the leaks at the Fukushima plant.This is a massive natural disaster, which will have long lasting ecological, social, and economic ramifications.

Meanwhile, in Libya, we have Ghadafi using civilians as meat shields, and yet another war is brewing there before we're even out of Afghanistan (remember Afghanistan?).

And, for chrissakes, Canada's having an election. But do most of us care about any of this? No. We'd rather watch Dancing With the Stars.

As so many have done before me, I would like to take this opportunity to blame human nature as exacerbated by the modern media for this generalized modern antipathy. In the time of the Niebelungenlied, when a war happened, either you were directly involved in it, or unaware of it. There was no distance--either it was there, directly in your life, or it was not. Now, after the introduction of the modern media, we can be aware of horrific things happening all around the world--not just what's going on in our back yard.

With this increased awareness comes the need to dumb down your emotions. We would have a nation of suicides if everyone intensely felt every loss we become aware of through the media. I can't weep for Japan. I can't even begin to fathom the confusion and pain people are going through there right now. The mind balks, emotions fail me, and the whole thing gets filed away in a more analytical part of my brain. Statistics, not people.

For most of us, it is easier for us to cry during the season finale of our favourite TV series, or while watching PS: I Love You than it is to feel anything at all watching the news. In fact, the news has to be somewhat fictionalized to even catch our attention--flashy headlines, themesongs for every disaster. CNN often makes reality look like a soap opera, because that's the only way you can get the ratings needed to even make news worthwhile.

I'm not saying that I'm not as desensitized as everyone else. This isn't a holier-than-thou post. I am saying that its a fucked up state of being, when The Vampire Diaries can make us cry, where we won't even bat an eye over tens of thousands dead in Japan.

So, do yourself a favour: pick something, anything that is going on in the world, in your country, your state or province, even your own city, neighborhood, or family, and try to give a shit about it. Try to remind yourself that empathy, and the pain that goes with it, is one of the things that makes us human.

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