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Experiencing Tragedy in a Digital Age

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You don't usually expect much from a 20th birthday. Mine was spent abroad, two days before I headed home to my family in Boston. Somehow that night, I found myself pushed to tears in the loneliness of my room after reading the news of tragedy back in the States.

This wasn't the Boston Marathon; the date was Dec. 14, 2012. A gunman had opened fire on an elementary school in Newtown, Conn. I had no personal connection to the event, but for some reason tears were streaming down my face. Thousands of miles removed from the incident, I composed a Facebook status to add to the plethora that was already piling up in my newsfeed. It just seemed like the natural thing to do.

On Monday, I found out about the Boston Marathon tragedy while I was in class. Immediately, I looked up the location of the event and was mildly assured that it was a fair distance from each my parents' workplaces in the city. In the meantime, my newsfeed overflowed with Facebook statuses regarding the event, which makes sense; most of my friends are from my hometown of Belmont, Mass., a skipping stone away from Boston proper. Watching my Facebook and Twitter feeds update on the second made me only more anxious to get in touch with my family, who I didn't have a chance to call until an hour later. Luckily, they were fine.

Throughout the day, I kept seeing status updates all commenting on the event. I scrolled through blurb after blurb of the same words. But this time, I hesitated before making one myself. Strangely enough, being personally invested in such an incident made me think more about posting a status update, maybe because now I had a harder time putting into words a fear that was much more real than anything I've felt before.

In a digital age dictated by social media, our perception of extreme emotions are warped. It's not a long shot to assume that people make caricatures of themselves on Facebook. We paint a portrait of the version of ourselves that we want others to see by selectively posting status updates and catering to our audience. It's no surprise, then, that most of our newsfeed consists of extreme emotions; no one posts a status about a mediocre day.

What's strange is the fact that, when tragedy strikes, people run to the nearest social media outlet to scribble a few words of comfort. Call me a cynic, but what is this urge to compulsively post an immediate reaction to events like these? I'm not pointing any fingers; in fact I'm guilty of it myself. After the Sandy Hook shootings, I promptly posted something along the lines of "This is horrible." Even after this week's tragedy in Boston, I posted, albeit with more hesitation, a status about my condolences for my hometown. But that doesn't mean I understand why I did it. Was I fishing for pity? I don't know. If so, that's a sick move on my part, considering I wasn't even personally affected.

Growing up in a world where we are surrounded by social interactivity and constantly bombarded with updates from the lives of other people, it's easy to give in to small things like making a Facebook status. A few hours after the explosions, I came across an image of a remembrance ribbon for the Boston Marathon on my newsfeed, and I couldn't help but feel a little anger. What was the point? It's not 'slacktivism' by any textbook definition, but it's close enough for me to feel like it somehow discounted the tragedy.

Why is it that we do this? Do we consider ourselves less human if we don't post a status about the tragedy? Or worse, is it the dopamine rush of getting dozens of likes on a status of a communal feeling that everyone should be feeling? Going through my Facebook feed on a day like Monday to scroll through hundreds of the same statuses almost made me desensitized to the tragedy at hand, and I'm sure that's the last thing that anyone actually intends to do.

It's not that I think we should stop posting status updates. I just think that there are more fruitful ways for us to use our words in a medium where they can get diluted so easily. In fact, social and online media was one of the ways that I myself stayed in the loop on developing updates. It was also a catalyst in how mainstream media offered meaningful ways to help those affected.

Or, even better, instead of posting a few words on a computer screen, let's instead truly express our feelings in a more honest way.

Two days after the Sandy Hook incident, I arrived back home from abroad. Before I even muttered a greeting to my parents, I hurled myself at my then-eight-year-old brother and squeezed him close. He asked me what was wrong, but I just loudly sobbed for a good ten minutes, digging my fingers into his shoulder blades and nearly crushing his ribcage. Never in my life had I wanted more to hold someone forever and not let go out of fear. It's unfortunate that it takes tragedy for us to truly express ourselves, but perhaps this is a lesson we can learn from in the future.

In those ten minutes, I gasped to tell my brother just how much I had missed him while I was abroad. My brother, who usually cringes and shies away from any form of affection, much like myself, simply embraced me and told me he loved me. It wasn't the first time he had told me that, but that time it was especially monumental.

By Denise Lu