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Imaginary friends

Bridget Galassini | Monday, October 8, 2012

Mark Sloan died last week. This name may mean nothing to some people, but to every “Grey’s Anatomy” fan, Dr. McSteamy will always be remembered as the sexiest, cockiest, best plastic surgeon that’s ever existed.

He may be just a character on a TV show, but when the years of his life flashed across the screen at the end of the episode, I felt like I was at a funeral reading his tombstone. I cried alone in my dorm room about the death of a fictional character. Sad, I know. But he was more than a fictional character to me. He was the man who always had a witty comment to make me laugh on any given Thursday, the man who taught me that we all make mistakes, yet some people suffer worse consequences, the man who was enthralled by Lexie Grey, but didn’t admit it until it was too late.

It made me wonder – is it right that I feel so much emotion for this person who isn’t even real? When I read stories about shootings in Chicago or the war in Iraq, of course I think it’s sad and horrible, but it doesn’t really faze me. I’ve become desensitized to it. I have this numbness toward the tragedy in our world because it happens so much.

It’s like if you put a frog in boiling water, it hops out immediately. But if you put it in room-temperature water and slowly heat it up, the frog will die because it won’t know to jump out. That’s how I’ve become unaffected by all of the injustices in our world – because the temperature has been rising slowly, I’m unable to jump out, unable to be shocked by any of it.

But witnessing Mark Sloan’s death was like putting the frog in boiling water for me. The sadness hit me right away because he was suddenly gone. That’s shocking and sad and hard to deal with. But then why aren’t the injustices in our world as shocking and sad and hard to deal with?

It could be because they’re far away from us. Characters are close, they’re relatable. But these problems in our world, they’re distant and maybe too much to handle. It’s like when someone is seriously injured and blacks out because the brain can’t deal with the pain. There’s too much to deal with, so the brain doesn’t deal with any of it. It’s in shock.

Dealing with problems in smaller doses is easier. Setting up one food pantry or one good school is more doable than solving world hunger or bringing good education to poor areas. Curing a disease on a case-by-case basis is easier than eliminating it completely. If you look at the big picture, things may seem hopeless – but if you zoom in, a solution seems possible.

That’s what fictional TV show characters do for us. They take general problems and make them specific. That single figure represents many problems from reality, but they’re relatable, sympathetic, loveable.

And they make us love them. They welcome us into their lives for a fleeting moment once a week, and in those moments we come to love them for the lessons they teach us. They teach us about love and heartbreak, life and death. I swear I’ve learned more than half of my life lessons from “Grey’s Anatomy” (specifically from Meredith’s monologues). We live vicariously through these characters, because they represent real problems that we face every day, though on a greater and more exaggerated scale.

So, these characters affect us, we feel like we know them. No wonder we’re sad when they leave us. They’re our friends – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, just a little strange. For instance, it’s strange to me that watching “Grey’s” while doing my chemistry homework gives me extra motivation to keep studying science or pre-med or whatever I choose. It’s almost like these doctors are my role models, but they’re not even real.

Sometimes I think I could better invest my time in reality, in real relationships, in crying for the tragedies in our world instead of crying for Mark Sloan’s death. Then again, maybe not. I’m still learning lessons and feeling human emotions. So what if it is a fictional TV character who brings them out? At least I feel something. If only this empathy could be extended to more people in real life.

I think it could, though, if I find a cause that makes me love it just as much as Mark Sloan made me love him. That would be the best of both worlds.

Bridget Galassini is a freshman. She can be reached at bgalassi@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.