How to account for the outpouring of public grief over the death of Hsing-Hsing, the Chinese Panda who was put to sleep Sunday at the National Zoo?
The front page of yesterday's Washington Post reported in somber tones that the giant panda will "go on display" next year at the Smithsonian Institution as a permanent memorial. He'll be skinned and stuffed, to be precise, but never mind.
On that same front page was a grim story reporting that as many as 98,000 Americans may die each year because of medical mistakes. But I suspect none of them will be memorialized with the same fervor as the Chinese bear.
The public sense of loss over Hsing-Hsing has been so acute that officials of the National Zoo seem ready to summon grief counselors. Appearing on the "Today Show" the morning after Hsing-Hsing's death, Lisa M. Stevens, the associate curator for primates and pandas, said: "Visitors yesterday were certainly surprised and shocked. I think visitors to the zoo today, of course, will come more emotionally prepared, because they've . . . heard the news coverage at this point."
The most poignant demonstrations of public mourning are the hundreds of e-mails sent to "washingtonpost.com," the paper's Web site, from all over the world. The writers describe Hsing-Hsing's passing like a death in the family.
"Upon learning of the death of Hsing-Hsing, I felt an immense sadness like losing a good friend," said Deborah B. of Atlanta. "Truly our 'shining light' has gone out now. . . . Bless you, Hsing-Hsing. You must know that you leave a huge hole in our hearts," wrote Gail R. from Dallas. "Hsing-Hsing is back together with his true love, Ling-Ling. Now they are happy together. We had them for a short time. They have each other forever," wrote SB from Washington. "[H]e has moved on to a better place and suffers no more. That can be our only consolation--that he rejoined his mate in a happier place," agreed Andrea M. from Manassas.
Now I don't know about animals going to heaven--that's a tricky one for me theologically. And I certainly don't want to diminish the emotion that is expressed in these e-mails. But I cannot help wondering what's going on when people grieve in this way over a zoo animal.
What's clear is that Hsing-Hsing's death has touched the nation's collective unconscious. The grieving isn't as intense as when John F. Kennedy Jr.'s plane crashed in the waters off Nantucket last summer, or when Princess Diana died in Paris. But it has that same aspect of communal sorrow.
These are meta-deaths, unlike those of ordinary human beings, or our own cats and dogs--which exact a real burden of grief. Except for the zookeepers, who saw him every day, there's little actual loss. Yet the emotion is intense.
Part of our feeling for Hsing-Hsing must be anthropomorphism. We endow Panda bears with quasi-human qualities. They're stuffed animals that seem to walk out of the nursery into our arms--with their roly fat tummies and cuddly fur and the soulful black circles around their eyes.
Psychologists speak of something they call the "cute response"--reactions people have to certain body proportions, such as short legs, or big heads, or wide eyes. When we see those characteristics, we say, almost involuntarily: "Isn't that cute." We can't help ourselves--it's a pre-programmed response. And pandas obviously evoke some of that automatic adorability.
The odd thing, if you ever spent much time at the panda pavilion was that, up close and personal, they really weren't that cute. They're extremely shy, for one thing, so it was hard to see them at all, because they spent so much time hiding. And when they were in view, they tended to sit on their bums and eat bamboo. You could watch them a long time without seeing much movement. I found other animals at the zoo much cuter, in the flesh. The pandas were fat, yes, but they didn't look especially happy.
But Hsing-Hsing always photographed well. As they say in Hollywood, the camera loved him. And that may be part of the explanation for the kind of grief the country feels now.
Hsing-Hsing was a celebrity. "He was undisputably the most famous animal in the world," as Albert J. from Washington observed in an e-mail to washingtonpost.com. So perhaps we grieved for him the way we grieved for JFK Jr. or Diana--celebrities we felt as if we knew but didn't. Indeed, it was the not knowing--the perfect, media-framed portrait--that allowed the tears to flow so easily for many of us.
I like a good cry as much as the next person. Indeed, one of my daughters asked me not long ago: "Daddy, do you cry during every movie?" But there's a word for this kind of easy sorrow. It's sentimentality. And there is an essential difference between sentimentality and the deeper emotion of real loss. JFK Jr. may have felt like a brother, but it's different when your real brother dies. Hsing-Hsing may have felt like your best friend, but it's different when your own beloved dog dies. Real loss isn't about having a good cry. It's a sense of emptiness and desolation that can last for years.
The danger of our media-saturated environment is that it leads us to confuse the two--sentimentality and real grief--and to imagine that they're the same.
My friend Garrett Epps, a law professor and sometime novelist, recalled this week the story in the papers a few years ago about a blind man and his seeing-eye dog, who were both injured by a runaway taxicab in New York City. The dog, Smokey, got hundreds of get-well cards from strangers. The blind man received just four. It made people feel good to love the animal, not so the ordinary man.