Reflections on a Tragedy

Note: I wrote this opinion piece almost one year ago and am posting it here on the anniversary of the helicopter crash that took the lives of Kobe Bryant and 8 others. This tragic event took place nearly 2 months before COVID-19 completely upended our collective sense of normalcy and predictability. Tragedy has become our constant companion on a global scale. The points I sought to make then are still relevant and resonant with me so I am choosing to share it and welcome your feedback.

On January 26, 2020, the world was shocked, saddened, emotionally-triggered, and polarized by the death of a very famous and celebrated man and his 13-year-old child, along with seven other people, in an impossible to foresee, violent crash.

For some, this celebrity represented the pinnacle of excellence and achievement, hard work and persistence, in the face of formidable odds. For others, he represented the hubris of success and the impunity that often accompanies it, based on multiple, credible allegations of his abuse of power and harm of the vulnerable.

As I reflect on the death of Kobe Bryant and his daughter, I’m struck by several things that I think are relevant to where we are as a society in this moment in time:

First, I’m reflecting on the way in which ordinary people feel so personally connected to famous people. We celebrate their excellence, their notoriety, their wealth, and their relative power. They influence our language, our fashion, our loyalties, and our aspirations. We don’t need to know them directly to feel and acknowledge their deep influence on us and our lives. When they make mistakes, even very ugly mistakes, we have a hard time reconciling our feelings about those actions and often ignore or defend their behavior, often to the detriment of our relationships with people we actually know and love.

Secondly, this tragic event brings up our collective discomfort and aversion around the concepts of death and dying. Having experienced momentous personal losses in my own life recently, the very public nature of Kobe’s death and our collective response to it brings up feelings of pain and grief that are not now, and likely never will be, fully resolved in myself. I find myself especially upset that his young daughter and her friend were also cut short and how we are all diminished by the loss of their potential contributions to our world. I imagine that many of us struggle to make peace with our own deep and complex grief related to the cumulative losses we’ve experienced that have been triggered by this glaring reminder of the indiscriminate nature of death.

My third observation has to do with polarization and conflicting feelings. For those who loved Kobe and what he represented to them, this is an unequivocally terrible situation. There is no scenario, real or imagined, that could change their sense of who he was or what he accomplished. He is a hero. Full stop. For others, who are troubled by very serious misdeeds he committed during his life, this loss is far more complicated. It is not possible to erase well-documented and public history or the memories of those who have experienced abuse when discussing Kobe’s life and death. I wonder how our collective reactions might be different if another celebrity (perhaps Harvey Weinstein is an appropriate example) was killed in an accident, instead of Bryant…?

Finally, I’m thinking a lot about the state of our world, more broadly. Every day, we are bombarded by truly terrifying information. Global climate change and its impacts are especially difficult for us to wrap our heads around. A number of recent commentaries I’ve seen on the subject have compared our responses as reflecting the stages in the grieving process. Some are still in denial- insisting that it cannot be real or, if it is, it is not within our ability as humans to affect. Others are angry- furious, even, toward anyone who dares to tell us that we are headed for a tragic crash of our own. Directing their ire at children- like Greta Thunberg and others- who stand, unflinching, in front of the most powerful people in the world, and tell us to wake up and do something. There are those who are dealing with deep sadness- depression- about where we seem to be headed. They feel powerless to act or believe their limited efforts are insufficient and pointless, so why bother?  Others have accepted that climate change is happening and insist that we must do everything in our power to mitigate the consequences immediately in order to secure a livable habitat for our children and future generations. Some vacillate between and among various stages from one day to the next.

To be clear about my position, I’m sincerely saddened by the death of Kobe Bryant, his daughter, Gianna, and the 7 other people who lost their lives. My heart goes out to their families, loved ones and all those who didn’t know them personally but loved them anyway. I also relate to and have empathy for survivors who cannot accept or excuse the harm caused by Kobe’s actions during his life, despite his tragic death. I implore anyone reading this to consider whether their perspective would be different if the public figure who died on Sunday had been one who you have complicated or negative feelings about. Perhaps that may help you empathize with those with whom you may disagree- on this situation and others? Finally, I wonder if we might, as a society, begin to question why other tragedies- such as the extinction of over 200 species of life on our planet every day from climate change and the threat that poses to all of us- are not met with the same public outcry that we are seeing over the death of one celebrity, regardless of his individual impact. Will we mobilize to prevent our own crash or pretend it was unforeseeable, too?

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