Socially Unacceptable: Grief Porn

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A few days ago I was on my way to work, and during my morning commute I listened to a brief national news segment from one of the local radio stations. The daily segment typically features a story or two about whatever everyone was talking about the day before, another story about the government, and one or two more stories that would be identified as weird or humorous news. But there was something different about this particular morning. The man’s monologue, which is usually a bit snarky and lighthearted at this point of the broadcast, was a bit more somber this time. “Tragedy in Disney World,” he said calmly. The man then shared a story about how a family of eight was involved in a fatal wreck on the way to Disney World. One of the teenage children fell asleep at the wheel en route, killing both parents and five people in all. The strangest part of the report was there was absolutely no resolve to the story. It was simply a statement of the facts, followed by the broadcaster’s sign-off, and onto another advertisement.

But why? Why, first of all, does a local radio station’s broadcast thousands of miles away need to be informed with such a story? And why does our culture deem this kind of story as “news” that belongs on our newscasts?

Certainly there is plenty of supply when it comes to these kinds of stories. It’s inescapable. The national television stations are littered with crime, injustice, and what’s going wrong with the world. Your local news is filled with stories of murder, rape, abuse, investigations, and arrests. Get on Facebook, and there they sit for us to read:

“Unarmed man fatally shot by Brooklyn police.”
“Dad sings ‘Blackbird’ to dying baby son in heartbreaking video.”
“This teen committed suicide after years of bullying.”
“College student is still missing, possible suspect identified.”
“Shooting reported on college campus, three wounded.”

Sure, the supply of such stories are high, but perhaps the demand is even higher.

“Grief porn” is a term I am borrowing from Kelly Conaboy, who also just wrote an excellent piece discussing this issue. You’d do just as well to read her article, but my reason for writing anything at all on the matter is to address this topic with a specific Christian perspective in mind. Our ideas overlap in many places, but it’s important that we see, from a Biblical standpoint, why we are wired this way and if this is a problem or not.

So what is grief porn? It’s exactly what pornography is, except the object of our lusts and desires are grievous in nature instead of sexual. It is the obvious obsession our culture has had for a long time, far longer than Facebook or even the Internet itself. There is an innate part of us that has always been drawn to obsess over melancholies. People have always loved a good “sad movie.” Some of the most hailed and celebrated musicians and songs are the ones centered around the themes of sadness. We are fascinated at stories of death, crime, dystopia, and fear, and if we weren’t, we wouldn’t have five versions of “CSI.” The reason grief porn seems so dominant on social media platforms is because everything is only one click away from being shared with a whole list of friends, and before you know it, a report of a man leaving his child in a hot car has been read a million times in mere hours. Social media sites know that, and they certainly capitalize on it.

One of the best examples of grief porn in recent memory was the death of Robin Williams. One of comedy’s paramount figures, who was in several movies I loved, was the only topic of discussion for about a week or two on literally every media platform. And rightfully so, the man deserves tributes and respects. But for a week or so, the breaking updates and suicide details and autopsy reports were literally inescapable. Any time one new detail or there was one new twist on the story or one celebrity tweeted in response, we were sure to see it.

For Christians, what should our response be to such stories? Is it wrong for us to share, let alone watch the video of a father somberly singing a Beatles song to his dying newborn? Should we find ourselves enveloped in criminal cases that have literally nothing to do with us?

Before we can answer that, we have to have some understanding of why we are wired to be this way. The Bible tells us that we are, first of all, born into a nature of grief. It is clear that sin entered into the world through Adam in Genesis 3, and it spread to all men (Rom. 5:12) because of the fall. Not only did Adam usher in sin into the world, but also pain, death, and grief. There was no such thing as a broken heart in Genesis 1–2. Eden was a place free from the troubles of the world, but since the fall, and since our birth, we’ve experienced nothing but trouble, due to man’s sinful, instilled nature. Despite you’ll hear from televangelists and prosperity preachers, we, even as Christians, will experience grief, sorrow, pain, loss, and suffering. And it’s not only because of our nature by birth, but because God uses grief for His glory. That seems sick and twisted at first, but we must understand God’s motives behind our grief. What better depiction of our dependance and trust in God is there than when we turn to Him in times of grief? God also lets us experience grief so that we may identify with our brothers and sisters. 2 Corinthians 3:1–4 says that we sometimes experience trials “so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction.” It is one of the ways our Lord helps us love one another and serve one another well, but we first must have walked through the fire before we can coach another to do the same.

All in all, we crave to find Eden again, and the Christian certainly will one day, but this is perhaps the greatest reason why we are exposed to obsession with grief porn; we are not home yet. We are all longing for the day when He will wipe every tear from our eye and death will be no more (Rev. 21:4). But as we know, in the meantime, our bones are wasting away (Ps. 31:10), and we are crushed in spirit (Ps. 34:18). We experience fatigue, disease, and loss of loved ones. We watch the world around us fall victim to vicious weather, starvation, heinous crime, and tragedy. This is the world we live in, but it is only our temporary residence before we reach our eternal resting place. Science and psychology has determined that we often are attracted to “grief porn” as a society because it helps us cope with our current state of distress, and helps us better recognize what there is to be happy about. Certainly there is good research out there to support this idea. But it’s deeper than that. We are all, Christian or not, longing to be with our Creator, even if we don’t know it. And Christians certainly will be one day. Until then, we will wait in anticipation that is sometimes stricken with grief.

This is why we are wired this way, but the question remains; how should we, as Christians, respond to “grief porn?” I have some exhortations I’d like to encourage you with as we come to a close.

Turn the news off for a while.

I begin with a story. My wife and I didn’t have cable for the entire first year of our marriage. Needless to say, we were exposed to hardly any local news outside of what we came across online. We weren’t living under a rock, but we were detached. When we got an antennae for our television a few months ago, we had the ability to watch the local news, but what we found was really disheartening. In our absence from local news we had built up a sensitivity to so much of the sad news of the day, that it was almost uncomfortable for us to watch again. I think it would do us all some good to take a break from consuming so much news. Try staying off Facebook or Twitter for a week, let alone a day. Don’t watch the evening news next week while you and your family eat dinner. Take some time away from it and see what happens. You may be surprised what you find when you come back to it. Here is a great article on some of the potential dangers of news consumption.

Your grief will never be a “good” thing unless it produces hope or holiness.

Is grief porn a problem? Yes and no. Grief porn becomes a problem when we consume these kinds of stories and we spiral into a deeper sense of hopelessness, rather than a heightened sense of hopefulness. Even when we grieve what happens to us personally (death in the family, unemployment, etc.), our grief becomes harmful when it forces us into a mindset of denial or makes us feel God is absent or unloving. Grief itself is not bad. It’s a good thing encouraged by Scripture. The author of Hebrews says “[God] disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (12:10–11). But to grieve as those who have no hope (1 Thess. 4:13) is not good practice for us. Is the media you’re consuming leading you to hope, or to holiness, or is it desensitizing you to both?

Consider why you share the stories you do.

When you hit “share,” what is your motivation for it? Sometimes we have to ask ourselves this. We have a reason for watching and facilitating the spread of these kinds of stories, but we have to identify it, and we have to avoid doing so if it’s not leading us and others to hope and holiness. Do we really want to foster a social environment of sharing a story of a family dying on their way to Disney World just for the sake of marinating over how awful that story is? Do we really want to be saturated by the cheap virally-charged tragedy stories just to help social media sites thrive in our sadness? Our grief shouldn’t be an addiction to reaction or attention.

Offer the greatest hope to those who need it.

I think about one of the top stories we have grieved over as a nation in recent months. The terrorist group ISIS has ravaged a whole race of innocent people, shedding blood and driving fear over far too many people. With each new beheading video, it becomes the top trend on every social site. But what are we doing when these videos surface? Are we using these tragedies to offer the world hope and holiness, or a cheap thrill of reaction and attention? Are we worried about what’s viral, or what’s fruitful?

In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

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