Food for Thought: Does Being Sad Over a Fictional Tragedy Bad?

Being a student who goes to school that uphold Islamic law, it was mandatory once a week for me to have a Tahfiz lesson in my class. Tahfiz is basically a memorization of Quran verse, so most of the time spend during those lesson was either memorizing Quran or our teacher preaching us or motivating us to do better. But there’s one statement that always bugs me coming from my Tahfiz teacher.

During one of his preach, when Palestine was attacked once again by Israel, he mentioned to us to be horrified of what Israel done to the Palestinian and not be fooled or be sadden over drama on television that was crafted purposely to induce sad feeling because compared to those, this was a real event.

For some reason, that statement really got me thinking.

Well of course, the point of what my teacher was trying to say are more less to be more sadden over real life tragedy. But to a degree however, it does makes me pondering, is it a bad thing to be sad over a fictional tragedy? A tragedy crafted by writer that was solely purposed to induce grief over a made up event?

I’m not going to lie there hasn’t been any several instances where there are several moments/events in “fiction world” that touch me emotionally whether when I was watching anime/movie, playing video games or reading manga/novel. But when I was shown/told regarding the horror/tragedy in real life however, sometimes its just not “clicking” with me. That’s worrying for me to some degree.

But I guess, it all goes back to one of the reason why we read/watch stories for in the first place.

Storytelling are a way for us to directly communicate one and another. Through it we can articulate/communicate a messages about the nature of consequences and human condition. So in some ways, its not a strange fact that story/narrative are inherently emotionally manipulative because in order for those messages to effectively connect/resonates to us, story needs to be in some way emotionally resonates to us whether through writing, fully articulated theme, well fleshed out compelling characters etc. Because that way, the messages that is being imparted will have a lasting impression and have a sense of weight (“realness” so to speak) into it.

For example lets look at Madoka Magica. The series central theme are about “Finding hope in the uncaring heartless universe”. In order for the message to have a real meat to it, the series needs to articulate how easy it is for us to fall into despair at the face of our cynical cruel world. Which is to some extension, we need to feel the sadness over the suffering the magical girls are going through in order to truly understand the weight of the message and when we do understand it, the message will be strongly engraved to our mind and heart.

Despite all of what I’ve said in the above paragraph however, there’s still uncertainty for me whether or not fictional tragedy is desensitize us from real life tragedy. Instinctively I wanted to say no, because it’s almost the same argument regarding how violent video games are turning us into an aggressive person. However, I’m not knowledgeable enough in media to know.

So with that dear readers, what are your thoughts on this matter?


  1. AnonymousMatcha · January 29, 2015

    I think this is a very interesting question on several different dimensions.

    Sensitivity to real world events, in my opinion, is a exercise of empathy. When you see or hear things on the news, those terrible things never directly happened to you—by nature (since we hear so much of it nowadays, we are desensitized), you probably will not be very affected unless it strikes close to home. In order to feel saddened, we must force ourselves to undergo an exercise of empathy.

    So how does fiction affect this exercise of empathy?

    In order to feel empathy for a real-life tragedy, we need to insert ourselves into the shoes of the victims. This process in itself is imaginative. Since we were never there at the scene of the tragedy, this exercise is by nature fictional.

    It is easy to overlook the cold statistic of thousands of refugees as we live our everyday lives.

    However, once we imagine what it is like to be a refugee displaced by war, it is hard not to empathize.

    Reading, watching, and writing fiction primes us to understanding emotions. It teaches us how to be empathic. What does it feel like for a mother to lose their child? What does it feel like for someone undergoing depression? What does it feel like to be stranded in the middle of nowhere with no food or water?

    Obviously, there’s a pitfall. Our imaginations are not accurate representations of reality, and this is also the threat that fiction poses on empathy. Grand Theft Auto, for instance, maybe impart a sense of joy to the gamer when committing a crime. With this in context, I think it is important that people differentiate between what is entertainment and what is an honest exercise in empathy.

    Fiction exists to entertain and evoke emotion. It is easier to feel emotionally moved by fiction because writers will put everything on the platter for you. We are consumers of fiction.

    To feel empathy for a real life tragedy, you must be the “writer,” not a consumer. Your brain must creatively fill in the details not provided by the dry and impersonal statistics and think about how the families of the victims might feel. We imagine how terrible we would feel if we were them, and that’s what creates the empathy.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Namhur · January 29, 2015

      That’s an interesting angle. Instead of we’re being desensitize by fiction, fiction can help us to emphatize with others. I haven’t consider that before.

      I also agree that we need to be aware on what we’re consume our media for. There are some we watch for entertainment value and there are some for thematic exploration and so on.

      To a degree I also a bit bothered by my teacher statement because it seems like he’s undervaluing the power of narrative just because it wasn’t “real”. I can understand why he thinks like that, but still ;_;


  2. Anon · January 29, 2015

    No, it do not desensitise you from real life tragedy. On the contrary, it nurtures the empathy inside your heart. Because you can see what happen to the characters, you can feel sad for them. With Palestine people, you don`t feel anything because you cannot imagine what hardships they have to endure. If you watch more documentary films, I think you will feel sad for them. You are really a kind heart person.

    Sometimes I feel bad because I don`t have a kind heart like you. While most anime watchers felt sad over the fate of Madoka girls, I didn`t shed a tear. It is not that I am a heartless person, but when I thought about the hardships of many people in the world, I could not but feel that the girls in Madoka were spoiled (especially Sayaka). As if they were the most unhappy people in the world, when in fact, there were countless unhappy people out there. Yes, I have over-criticised, but somehow, I cannot deny my true feeling.


    • Namhur · January 29, 2015

      Aww gee, thanks 🙂

      I’m not sure Madoka and the girls are spoiled in terms of suffering though. They do basically made a contract for a thankless rewardless job in order save the universe in an exchange on becoming a zombie and one day be the very source of despair they’re trying to fight against, but hey that’s just me.

      I can relate why you don’t want to feel sad to what happen to the girls though. In a way it feels bad for me if I cry over a fictional character rather than real life tragedy…


  3. L-zerb · January 31, 2015

    Ahh, I know that feeling. My primary school teacher also said that to me and I literally took his words for years! Thankfully my open minded parents told me that it’s okay to feel sad even if the story is not real. But it’s better to feel sad over a real tragedy.

    Up until now, my opinion is still like what my parents told me. I mean, where’s the harm in feeling sad over a fictional tragedy? like you said “Instead of we’re being desensitize by fiction, fiction can help us to emphatize with others” is definitely true.

    Fiction takes us closer to the characters. We witnessed and understand their suffering so it’s easier for us to feel sad for them. Many movies or series that are based on true story have a deeper and more genuine feeling to it mainly because it’s a true story. I believe that if we take real life tragedy and turn it into fiction-like, we will actually feel more sad.


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