This past weekend, while entertaining out-of-state friends, my wife and I revisited a discussion we've had since Hurricane Sandy wrought its devastation three months ago: How do any of us know when our curiosity has devolved into something less benign?
Encountering a police roadblock barring entry into one of the most hard hit NJ shore communities, one of our friends seemed relieved our plan to drive around and look had been foiled. He said something like "...I was feeling a little weird anyway..." That queasy sensation was familiar. When just the two of us took a walk around the day after the hurricane, downed trees, standing water, piles of debris were everywhere. Though many people were out and about on our local streets, it was difficult deciding who to talk to and what to say. Yet just looking without speaking felt creepy. My mind flashed to news stories about human vultures organizing bus sightseeing tours through post-Katrina New Orleans.
But many of the people my wife and I met on those walks, even those who appeared to have lost a great deal, seemed anxious to talk. So we both listened. I suppose the decision to drive our friends around this past weekend and look at Sandy's destruction could be partially explained by the German word schadenfreude - a human tendency to be fascinated by the misfortunes of others. But had we run into anyone, I hope my sensitivity would have superseded my fascination.