Please don’t read this column today if your heart needs consolation or your mind needs relief. I would like to be able to give you those things, but to honour my own well-being, I must accept that I don’t have the capacity to right now. Sometimes, I overestimate my capacity and don’t heed the trigger warning myself, so I’m assuring you now that you aren’t missing out if you don’t go further. If what you need today is music, or something delectable to eat, or sunlight through the tracery of leaves, then that’s all you should seek, and no more. There will be other days when excavations and confrontations are due.
But if – and only if – you have the space for it, let’s talk about the weight of the world. Let’s talk about how, when someone well-known takes their own life, there’s a shockwave that goes through the collective, then a range of predictable ripples. People express disbelief, which may be true in the moment but is ultimately hollow, revealing their inability to notice that struggle is a constant in many lives. People are also exhorted to be kind, without exploring what this means in practice. Among these many platitudes is a highly dangerous trend, which repeats every time such an event takes place: the invitation to privately get in touch. “My DMs are open” is the standard line. What happens next? How many truly have the bandwidth to hold the non-judgmental listening space they offered, and how many tap on the lid of someone’s Pandora’s box of pain and then vanish without staying for the murky work of the unpacking?
This time, beyond the trite and sometimes triggering bromides, is a kind of rage that is befitting of the time we’re living in, when everything is being torn down in the hopes of it being remade. There is anger towards an industry designed to ostracise and to withhold rewards. This is a good thing. But the person whose loss spurred these thoughts is erased by the finger-pointing and speculation. That’s one of the reasons why I haven’t named or referenced them directly. Some events like these do become symbols, especially where institutional murders or mysterious and connected demises are concerned. But for others, we must tread more lightly. There’ll always be more names in those hashtags, but they are not just hashtags.
If we engaged with carework, community, solidarity, world-rebuilding and re-envisioning systems on an ongoing basis, there would be less need to frame tragedies as catalysts. We could mourn a person without projecting onto them, co-opting their stories or in any way taking away from something that is ultimately, and profoundly, personal.
But why only mourn when we can support in the first place? If the struggles of the living – oppressed people, abused people, the hard-working and under-compensated, bullied students, anyone at all, really – are acknowledged while it matters, so much grief could be averted. To consider the collective often means to consider more deeply the individual (begin with yourself, and radiate outwards). There is no one approach, except: empathy must be a full-time endeavour, not just an expression reacting to a flare.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on June 23rd 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.