At face value, there’s nothing harmful about telling stories of shared experience. However, tales of uncles who knew someone who was kind of near Boston the week of the bombing are more than just annoying. Arbitrary connections to tragic events, and the competition surrounding these connections, are harmful to those actually involved in the incident and stem from a shameless need for attention and sympathy.
Everyone has at one point created a false connection to disaster, even though there are seemingly no motives for doing so. Especially in the wake of, or on the anniversary of, significant disasters, people frantically search for a way to tie their heart strings to these events, even when they may not have been directly affected. For example, the majority of the students in my history class not only claim to have 9/11 as their first memory, when they were not even 5 years old, but also can compile a list of people they know who were in New York at that time. These stories would be less objectionable if there wasn’t competition among the students for the clearest memory, the longest list, and ultimately the saddest story, even if the truth is stretched in the process.
It is not enough to have a story to tell that elicits sympathy from the audience, but the teller is often vying to be the most grief-stricken. The entire concept of this battle for the most pity seems completely counter-intuitive, and the reasons one would want the needless sympathy of others are not clear to me. Whether these stories aim to bring attention to the teller or are failed attempts at offering condolences to those actually affected by tragedy, these false connections trivialize real ones.
This is not to say that a personal connection is required in order to feel sad about something. In fact, it is more sensitive to those afflicted to display straight-forward empathy instead of presenting some far-fetched story about a distant relative who was also slightly a victim of the same event. The reason that counterfeit connections are so harmful is that the narrator’s true end goal is not to show sympathy, but to receive the sympathy of others. Personal connection stories could be a very powerful mechanism to comfort others, but there are more sincere ways to show sympathy without drawing attention to yourself.