A world of worry right here 


The evening of Christmas Day, I began to sneeze. The Friday mail had brought an unhappy letter from my son's English teacher. On the phone, my mother told me that Pooh, her favorite cat, hadn't been home for days. On the other side of the world, an underwater quake shook the Earth.

During the night, I woke shivering and got up to make tea. In Banda Aceh, Sumatra, the 76-year-old deputy mayor noticed that the ocean seemed to be reforming on the horizon. By the time my water had boiled, a series of mammoth waves traveling at enormous speed had exploded over Banda Aceh, Sri Lanka and the Indian coast. By the time I went back to bed to nurse my flu symptoms, about 100,000 people were dead.

I have often wondered about what seems to be the geographical nature of grief. I don't understand why human catastrophes in foreign places -- the crash of a Korean airliner or a flood in Venezuela -- often worry me less than temporary domestic crises like a bout with the flu or a missing cat or one of my children being in trouble at school. I want to be a good person, and to be involved in the fate of humankind. I have even memorized John Donne's stirring warning that everyone's death diminishes me. "Never send to know for whom the bell tolls," he wrote in his famous 17th-century sermon on the subject. "It tolls for thee."

Still, my heart doesn't seem to have room for the whole world. Grief is relative. I am disturbed when people don't understand how it felt to be in Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001. Yet, I wonder what my own reaction would have been if I didn't live in New York. After all, I am hazy on the details of the earthquake in Iran the day after Christmas 2003 that killed almost 30,000 people. I don't really remember the cyclone in Bangladesh back in 1991 that killed more than 100,000. Do you? That year I had a two small children and my marriage was coming apart. In 1976 I was single and an editor at Newsweek, yet I have no recollection of the July earthquake in China that ultimately killed more than 200,000 people. Did we even put it on the cover?

This time it's different, and I'm not sure why. Maybe the expanding immigrant population brings Indonesia closer. I go to a Thai restaurant; my daughter buys her newspaper from a Sri Lankan. Maybe living through the nightmare of the World Trade Center attacks has raised my consciousness.

Perhaps millions of photographs, personal stories, video clips and 24/7 news stations have finally created the global village we've been hearing about for years. Our televisions are on all the time now, no longer isolated in dens and bedrooms. Our computer screens flash constantly. Intimate images from anywhere are instantaneously transmitted into our own intimate lives. My 15-year-old son knows more about what's happening on the other side of the world during any given hour than President Eisenhower or even President Ford could have known.

Although I can't feel the physical losses and the heartbreaking ordeal of the victims I see on my television set, I am there with them. I have enough information to imagine the horror of having a child ripped away by a flood that comes from nowhere, the screaming and crying, the piles of unidentified bodies.

I see my own kids in the faces of the orphaned children and hear myself in the stories of parents searching for their missing families. I find myself praying for strangers in Indonesia, India and Sri Lanka although their religion is different from mine. I'm sending my donations through UNICEF although I have never before sent money to any international disaster relief fund.

A lot has been written about the evils of the information age and the way it has made the world a smaller place. The good news is that we are actually learning to care about one another.

It takes a long time for information to filter through to our feelings. There is a huge difference between knowing about something and caring about it. What we know seems to have finally reached the heart.

My flu symptoms have passed. My mother's cat is still missing. But I am mourning along with my neighbors in Sumatra and Sri Lanka. This time I know enough to understand what has happened and to grieve along with others. This time I know the bell is tolling for me.

-- Susan Cheever, a columnist at Newsday, is the author of 11 books, including My Name Is Bill, a biography of Bill Wilson, the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous.


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