Monday, 2 January 2017
A difficult year, part 2
Many of my acquaintances declare this to be “the worst year ever,” which seems a bit melodramatic to me – I might have picked, I don’t know, 1940 or 1666 or 1348 or any number of other possibilities. Nonetheless, I understand that a lot of friends of mine in the USA, UK and Ireland have all seen particularly contentious political debates, Europe continues to see a flood of refugees from the Middle East, and the Middle East … their tragedies dwarf anything we have seen in generations.
Interestingly, though, few people I know mention Syria, or the shrinking Arctic ice, or the increasingly dubious quality of tap water in US towns, or all the other things that affect their lives. What they usually name are celebrities – singers and actors – who died this year, from Prince to Alan Rickman to Carrie Fisher. And they don’t just feel disappointed, they feel betrayed.
With no disrespect to their genuine grief, I keep in mind that these celebrities were not people who spent their lives feeding Third-World orphans or facing down authoritarian death squads. They were show-business performers who made it big – at best, nice people who used their fame and wealth generously. I know no one who knew them personally, yet I know many people who mourned them as though they were family.
A few reasons for this stand out. Most modern people have their first crushes and obsessions for celebrities who were famous when they were teenagers, say, 10 to 20. Since most of those teen idols will be a decade or two older than their fans, and many actors and singers have a decade or so at their peak, modern people go through life idolising people two to three decades older than themselves.
People who were famous outside that generational window don't bother us when they die. Most people my age were hit hard by the death of Carrie Fisher or George Michael, but not by Maureen O'Hara or Stan Freberg last year, as people my age were not likely to know or care who those people were. Likewise, most of my daughter’s teenaged peers wouldn't know who Carrie Fisher or George Michael are, so those deaths wouldn't affect them.
In other words, I told people my age, we're getting to the middle-aged window when celebrity deaths tend to hit us. It’s a normal part of a cycle, and not an unprecedented catastrophe – but most of my peers had never experienced this, as they’ve never been this age before.
Another factor in our common grief is that these days, popular singers and actors fill our media screens, talk to us out of our televisions and phones, and we hear their songs and words on grocery-store loudspeakers. A modern Westerner might hear George Michael several times a day, but their grandmother a few times a year. Thus, celebrities become far more familiar than cousins or neighbours, and we feel their loss.
Celebrity deaths seems like a minor issue compared to so many others in the world, but I think it helps illuminate why other world events caused people such grief this year. Take the US election; whatever you think of Mr. Trump, we’ve had far worse elections than this, just outside of the tiny window of pop-culture memory. Yet most of my peers have never experienced a more contentious election, so this one seems like The Worst in Human History.
In the same way, our modern media spends an inordinate amount of time talking about one office (president) in one branch (executive) of one level of government (federal) in one country (USA). So many news stories focus on the individual in that one office that we see them more often than we see our neighbours, and our hopes and fears cling to that individual’s persona.
Either way, 2017 is likely to be the new Worst Year Ever, as all the trends of 2016 are likely to keep happening. I have, however, noted one group that were not devastated by the events of 2016 – those people who didn’t follow most pop culture at all.
Those people – some elderly neighbours of mine, some homesteading friends in the USA or Europe -- lived in a world with real consequences and victories, and their life was moored to people they knew. They wouldn’t feel grief at the loss of someone on a screen, but the loss of a neighbour or friend. I’ve learned a lot from my neighbours, and will feel genuine grief when they are gone – and with luck, someone like them will miss me someday.