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One Fan's Take: Mourning a Tragedy, Grieving for an Individual

RIP Rusty
RIP Rusty

Not long after the news of the deadly crash which destroyed an entire hockey team today, the names of the individuals who made up the team started coming out. As I went over the names, the faces of those I recognized jumped into my head one by one. Out of more than 40 people who tragically lost their lives in that crash, Karlis Skrastins, Josef Vasicek, Pavol Demitra, Brad McCrimmon, and Ruslan Salei were the ones who had faces I could put to their names. That's what my mind immediately did, too; it put faces to all of those names.

As I tried to process what I knew, details emerged and added to the deluge. Not helping in the matter was the usually-helpful Twitter. The same place where you can get lightning-fast updates and opinions is also by its nature a place where you can get bad reports and contradictory updates at the same speed. What I knew ten minutes after hearing the news of the crash was that Ruslan Salei was a member of the team involved in the crash. What I experienced in the hours that followed was a hailstorm of different confirmations as to whether he was indeed on the flight or whether he was already in his home country of Belarus awaiting his team for their season opener.

I still can't process the scope of total human loss that happened today. I'm not going to even try. It would be intellectually dishonest of me to say that I have the capacity to adequately complete such a task. With that comes a certain amount of guilt of its own. How can I grieve this tragedy more than the two suicide bombings which killed 34 and injured 143 today? If I can do that, how can I mourn the loss of any one individual person over the losses suffered by the entire human race on any given day?  Moreso, how could I do this despite not personally knowing a single one of these people? 

Trying to grasp the scope of human suffering is a good way to end up at the bottom of a bottle of whiskey. You'd be just as successful trying to experience the same joy, elation, passion, and love felt by every person on any given day. Perhaps you're a more highly-evolved person than I am, but I simply lack the capacity. 

Rather than tilting at windmills and trying to pull off the impossible in some vain attempt to say I'm any better a person than anybody else, I came to the conclusion today that perhaps I need to grasp my own limits.

Ruslan Salei's death today hit me on a personal level simply because Ruslan Salei is closer to my monkeysphere.

For those too lazy to read another 3,600-word article, let me summarize for you:

The Monkeysphere is the group of people who each of us, using our monkeyish brains, are able to conceptualize as people.

Those who exist outside that core group of a few dozen people are not people to us. They're sort of one-dimensional bit characters.

Remember the first time, as a kid, you met one of your school teachers outside the classroom? Maybe you saw old Miss Puckerson at Taco Bell eating refried beans through a straw, or saw your principal walking out of a dildo shop. Do you remember that surreal feeling you had when you saw these people actually had lives outside the classroom?

I mean, they're not people. They're teachers.

Now, it's more than a few dozen. Current going wisdom is that the number is about 230 people who all exist somewhere in that sphere. Naturally, the ones closer to the center are the ones that elicit more caring.

In the wake of tragedy and in the realm of social media, this is a hard concept with which to wrestle. I know that if I think about it, I can be sad for each individual who lost his or her life today. I can spend my time learning about these people, their lives, their families, their hopes, their plans, and their pasts. However, I know doing that is going to move them no closer to my monkeysphere than they started. Now, where I do disagree with the article linked above is in its claim that I apparently lack the capacity to care at all. That's not true. I am very sorry for the loss of these people and for the senseless loss of people everywhere, even if I don't know them.

So why is Ruslan Salei anywhere near my monkeysphere? Perhaps it's as simple as the fact that he played for the Red Wings. As I root for that team, I'm bound to simply like their players more than I like other hockey players. That alone has an impact. Was Ruslan Salei any more worthy as a person than anybody else? Objectively, I have no idea. To boil it down, I didn't know Ruslan Salei very well as a person. To tell the truth, my sports fandom is not built on objectivity. My sports fandom is built on subjective measures and the ability to embrace the emotion of the game. I was once accused of living vicariously through my team. While the bitter reject on the back end of the poison pen which flung that barb was trying to be hurtful with that statement, there's definitely a grain of truth to it. If there wasn't some form of vicarious enjoyment to be had, then what am I left with? Stoic curiosity?  I suppose that's possible, perhaps even likely, but it's not what I am as a fan.

But, if it's a case of former association with the Red Wings, why do I mourn the loss of Brad McCrimmon as part of the tragedy while grieving the loss of Ruslan Salei as something that touched me? I certainly wasn't any nicer to Salei than I was to McCrimmon in things that I've written. I didn't say I was sad to see either of them leave Detroit in the offseason.

Part of it certainly has to do Salei being a player and McCrimmon a coach. The rest, I think, is the offshoot of following these players and how much we do live vicariously through the players.  It also has to do with how people view social relationships. After all, I shared life experiences with Salei.

Scoff if you must. I know full well and good that Ruslan Salei didn't know me from Adam and didn't give a crap for my life. The social experience of people doesn't require that both of them recognize a shared experience to have one though (otherwise, what's the point of ever watching any television show or movie?) As Wings fans learned that Salei's wife was expecting their 2nd daughter last season, it wasn't just a morsel of information to chew up. More than that, it was a detail.

If it helps, think of people outside of your monkeysphere as being a bunch of stick-figures drawn in your mind. You recognize that each of them is an individual, but until you get those details, separating one from any other is impossible. As more details come in, the more he is separated from the faceless mass and the more he becomes, as the Cracked article hints, a person.

As my emotional states rose and fell with the Wings through the season, those details helped shape the context of understanding. When Salei's play suffered as the birth of his daughter neared, that detail helped a great deal to put what was happening in context. Funny enough, the subjective nature of my fandom was helped out incredibly by knowing these objective factors. It's easier to give a guy a break for a string of bad games when you know his mind is elsewhere.

Having a picture of Salei as a person, even if it wasn't a wholly filled-in portrait of him is what separated him from the rest in the wake of today's tragedy. In my mind, I know that everybody who lost his life has a story and is a person; but in my heart I felt the loss of Salei, the one I knew, even if I didn't really know him at all.

I will continue to mourn for the loss of everybody on that plane today and to hope for the survival of the two men in critical condition. At the same time, I'll be working through the grief of losing Ruslan Salei. That's who I am as a fan and that's who I am as a person.