Psychological Notes on the Aftermath of Flight 370’s Disappearance: “Cans’t Thou Draw Out Leviathan With A Hook?”

On September 12th, 2001, I joined a busload of mental health workers dispatched by the Red Cross to Manhattan’s 23rd Street Armory, where we were to render help to families of missing 9/11 victims.

We arrived at twilight, and were promptly greeted by a horde of reporters bawling inane, insensitive questions. Inside the Armory’s cavernous space we joined a melee of other circulating professional caretakers; pressing cups of coffee and offers of support upon weeping or dazed or stolid family members who by that time had mostly stopped seeking either.

During an hour of wandering about to little purpose, I grew concerned that our well-intentioned efforts might in fact be augmenting the general misery. So I asked a police sergeant for his take on the situation.

“I’m on my third shift,” he replied wearily. “Off the record, and no offense, Doc, I think you people ought to stop pestering these poor folks. What they really should do is go home and talk to their priests. If anyone survived, we’d have known about it by now.”

I’ve kept remembering that Dante-esque Armory experience as I’ve followed the aftermath of the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 on March 5. The harrowing sight of the Twin Tower’s collapse on TV, endlessly repeated, however traumatic, at least showed that few could have survived after the initial evacuation. A few families continued to believe for months or even longer that their loved one would somehow emerge from the catastrophe. But the majority were able to acknowledge their loss within a week, and begin the work of grieving.

By comparison, I must wonder if the mourning of many relatives in the Malaysia Airlines disaster has been tragically forestalled, because hope for a loved one’s survival is still being stoked by a perfect storm of preventable contributing factors.

The unusual events surrounding the plane’s disappearance— the switched off transponder, radical departures from the flight plan, abrupt changes in altitude and direction—set the stage for the usual media circus to evolve into a prolonged and profitable feeding frenzy. (CNN in particular rose like a phoenix from its subterranean ratings.)

The predictable klatch of blathering pundits was joined by a plethora of experts, some dubious. Opinions were rendered on every conceivable aspect of the disaster, from passenger profiles to the flotsam and jetsam trolled from the straits of Malacca to the Bay of Bengal. Endless discussions about the vicissitudes of deep ocean exploration and the latest gizmos deployed in the search, sometimes gave an eerie impression that the crew and passengers of Flight 370 had ceased to matter.

The hope of relatives was further stoked by persistent lollygagging and evasions both by Malaysia Airlines and government officials. From the first, confusing and contradictory reports were issued about Flight 370’s fate. Announcements that the plane had crashed into nearby seas with no survivors were superseded by reports that it might have been diverted landwards—thus raising the possibility that it might now be situated in some obscure locale with all aboard still alive.

Strangely, one saw or heard very little about the relatives themselves on the media early on, and virtually nothing as the days dragged on. (A disquieting shot of a relative being dragged out of an airline conference can be found here.)

It turned out that many relatives had been whisked away to hotels where interviews were denied to reporters on one pretext or another. Others returned to their respective countries. Japanese family members who angrily demanded action from their government were rebuked and advised not to jump to conclusions. So far, they’ve complied, arguably because respect for authority is deeply ingrained in the national character.

Chinese relatives who went back to their homeland have essentially remained silent. Whether they decided to keep mum on their own, or were ordered to do so by an essentially totalitarian government, remains a vexing question.

One or another media talking head has intimated that the prolonged search—and implicitly the glut of media attention—was necessary if relatives were to have “closure” (a word I’ve come to detest in this context). Whatever the cause of death, it is most certainly helpful to have remains properly identified and interred. But this isn’t strictly necessary for effective grieving. I expect that most relatives of the vanished 9/11 victims have been able to successfully mourn their loss. I’ve treated several, and met others.

The “closure” issue often raised by the media implies that the cessation of grief must be absolute, akin to the hermetic sealing of a Pharonic tomb. While successful mourning allows us to pass through the valley of despair and take up life again, memories of the departed must continue to surface, painfully or pleasurably. Such precious remembrance is ritualized in every faith I know.

But the interminable media response to Flight 370 wouldn’t have occurred if millions weren’t watching. One doubts that morbid curiosity alone compelled viewers. Concern about airline security clearly has played a role, with so many of us in the air these days.

I submit that a deeper explanation resides in our perennial fascination with mysteries of every sort and their resolution. Death poses the most formidable mystery of all, and the most poignant need for answers—as well as a conscious or unconscious desire to escape the reaper, even if only by proxy (in this case, by the survival of Flight 370’s passengers.)

So theories addressing the riddle of Flight 370’s fate continue to flourish—some rational, others on the lunatic fringe: invoking human error or mental illness, mechanical failure, hijacking gone wrong, a terrorist’s bomb, a meteor strike, alien abduction. And hope against all hope remains that the plane and passengers still exist somewhere. . . anywhere. . . except in the bosom of the deep.

Angrily demanded by Job to furnish reasons for his suffering, God silences him into humility for what he can neither perform nor comprehend – because he is not God. Speaking invisibly from a whirlwind, God thunders:

“Cans’t thou draw out Leviathan with a hook?”

Leviathan is a mythic sea-creature likened to a whale of immeasurable size. God can fish him up. Job cannot, and should not seek to do so.

Flight 370 has become our Leviathan, its passengers Leviathan’s children. In accepting our inability to draw them out of whatever deep place they lie, lies the best hope of healing, a necessarily ambiguous closure.

[Addendum: Several days ago, the Malaysian government issued a statement that covered the possible routes Flight 370 might have taken and other technical details. All remaining relatives who had been put up at hotels would be dispatched “to the comfort of their homes.” Not only was there no mention of the possibility that the plane had been destroyed, killing all aboard. The word “death” never appeared in the statement.]

– originally published on Psychiatric Times http://www.psychiatrictimes.com

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