Tuesday, March 08, 2005

In defence of the trivial

It's been a rough couple of weeks - not for me personally, but for people I work with and admire greatly. My day job is with a health care organization that is under scrutiny after a top-level firing, patient deaths, and horrendous infections. Our dedicated, talented health care workers are forced to work under difficult circumstances, and the consequences of inevitable mistakes can be tragic. If I misplace a comma, people don't die. I can only imagine the pressure and empathize with those involved.

Because our jobs also involve keeping tabs on media coverage, the water cooler talk among my communications colleagues and I has been the spate of incredibly sad national and local news over the last few days: four Mounties die in the line of duty; a 5-year-old girl thrown from an overpass by her father; a young gas station attendant killed after trying to stop a fill-and-dash driver.

So, after another depressing day of media headlines and postings about flesh eating disease and plans to heal a sick health care system, I headed home excited about what awaited me: Bringing Up Baby, for a fix of one of my favourite dead actors, Cary Grant, in one of my favourite movies, and House, my favourite tv show featuring my favourite tv doctor played by one of my favourite living actors, Hugh Laurie. Does my joy over a silly movie and flawed television show make me feel shallow, after the life and death stuff I left behind? Nope.

Entertainment is important. I mean, obviously entertainment serves to distract us from the blacker moments of life; just because bad things happen doesn't mean we have to perpetually wallow in the darkness. But can I really say entertainment is important? Sure.

On September 11, 2001, I was the Living section editor for a newspaper in Mexico. The planned feature story had to be scrapped, but what to put in its place? Page after page of analysing death and terrorism followed by, what, a feature on the latest movie release? My job felt very insignificant that day. The section cover ended up being a pastiche of the entertainment industry's response to the tragedy – the Latin Grammys ceremony cancelled (Mexico, remember – they'd care), the Emmys postponed and toned down. Not important stuff in itself, but it started me thinking consciously about how crucial the very existence of this other world is, this fictional world of movies and books and television.

I read, I write, I watch movies and television to transport myself into another life. Mostly because one life just isn't enough, and I can live vicariously through fictional characters. Sometimes, like with 9/11, to transcend the bleak realities of life around me, and sometimes to get another perspective on reality. I don't just watch these zany paleontologists and dedicated doctors, I enter their world, along with the worlds of determined female boxers and crazed Hollywood moguls and whimsical Scottish writers and depressed wine lovers and on and on. It enriches me. It helps me understand more fully the world outside myself. It allows me to imagine and to empathize.

"One's own sorrow, how bearable, how understandable,
but the misery of another person, a separate being,
how unimaginably terrible, of what unseen quality,
unknown duration, inconceivable anguish!"
- Elizabeth Jane Howard, The Beautiful Visit