Fame, empathy in the face of tragedy


In the wake of yet another act of terror, I find myself thinking of the dead. If I would have written that sentence a few years ago, I probably would have received many concerning comments, but today, the ubiquity of death numbs whatever etiquette or decency has been built over the years.

So I think of the dead: What were their stories? Did they have children? Were they recently married? What if they had plans to meet a friend at a coffee shop the following day?

Scrolling through the #PrayForNice hashtag on Twitter, I saw videos that look more like a war-themed video game than anything I’d expect to see in real life amid well wishes from hundreds of thousands of users across the world. Everything looks sadly familiar. Unfortunately, the reaction to terrorism today is just an automatic response, especially to the famous.

They tell our favorite stories and bring our favorite characters to life before our eyes. So I wonder if we crave their comfort because we hope they can reach more people with their voice, or do we hold them to another unreachable standard created by fame?

If a celebrity doesn’t upload an Instagram or send out a tweet about the latest distress in the world, he or she is likely to be attacked by millions of followers.

In part, I understand. Celebrities are role models. They inspire people to change their hair, to get a better body and to give to charities they hold dear to their heart. Can’t they fix this mess, too?

That supposition is child-like and a product of fearing the continuous attacks, so why put the weight of our worries into another person’s hands?

Those who live in fame’s spotlight feel the shock of these traumatic events just as everyone else does, only we expect them to speak out.

Several are even antagonized for acting “without emotion” when responding to trauma, but sometimes, maintaining routine is one of the best things to do when in times of difficult experiences, according to Joan Cook’s TIME article, “Why People React to Terrorism News Differently.”

Hank Green, American musician, actor, vlogger, producer, screenwriter, director, script editor, cinematographer and co-founder of VidCon, is a great example of how tragedies can be handled different by each person.

“Sadly, I now have procedure for handling tragedy like this. Disconnect, wait 24 hrs for real information. Breaking news is unhealthy for me.” Green tweeted. “Feel for victims, feel my own emotions, but do not attempt to analyze or fact-find. #PrayForNice.”

In my opinion, that is the most honest response I saw under the hashtag. Yes, he was letting his fans know he cares, but he was truthful with them, too. Celebrity or not, you have the power to choose how you respond, and Green decided to sympathize first and then discuss the repercussions later.

Some celebrities may choose to speak loudly and without trepidation for some causes, like Leonardo DiCaprio, who lobbied for recognizing climate change during his Oscar’s acceptance speech.

It’s amazing to see that these people who we practically dehumanize have such humane emotion about the world, but being an activist isn’t a matter of fame.

I believe when celebrities become famous, they automatically assume the reigns of a role model, whether they like it or not. Fame can be this nasty thing they fight for their entire life, or it can be a tool they use to their advantage. In times of trauma, words are sometimes the most comforting present to give.

“It hits you. It’s like a wave. You just get this profound feeling of instability… the Earth isn’t stable anymore and then it passes and it becomes more infrequent, but I still get it sometimes,” actor Liam Neeson said Alena Hall’s Huffington Post article, “8 celebrities who transformed tragedy into something positive.”

It was very brave of Neeson to open up to the media in that way, but he must have known his words had the power to help another when trauma wrecks their world.

That, I think, is the best outcome of fame. These celebrities will be remembered for their acting abilities, their money or their crazy lives, but they will also be cherished for the impact they had on those who celebrated them.

An Instagram photo might not bring back a loved one or reverse horrific events, but the hole created in our world by death and destruction is filled with empathy, and that is not an action to be taken for granted.

So I think of the living, and how we can help each other in times of trial or fear. I think about all of the coffee shops that are bustling with friends, families and strangers. I think how we–celebrities, doctors, teachers, students–all help each other get through the hard times.

I think of the quote by author Raymond Carver: “I could hear my heart beating. I could hear everyone’s heart. I could hear the human noise we sat there making, not one of us moving, not even when the room went dark.”