It’s hard to ignore a story about a commercial airliner that went missing nearly three weeks ago and still has not conclusively been found.
But I’ve been trying my best to do exactly that.
It’s not that I’m incurious about how a large pile of metal carrying some 239 human beings could vanish into thin air. With all the technology now at the world’s disposal, it seems downright impossible for a loaded airplane to disappear without a trace.
And yet I have opted to mostly tune out the ongoing saga of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, keeping the coverage of its possible whereabouts at arm’s length. The reason for this concerns the narrow but crucial difference between what we’d call a “search for answers” and a “search for meaning.”
To wit: Since the Malaysia Airlines plane first lost radio contact with officials on the ground, it has become increasingly clear that we have no earthly idea what the hell happened. America’s news networks have conjured one hypothetical scenario after another, but these seem to be based on a combination of shoddy information and pure speculation. Actual, verifiable facts have come in fits and starts, leaving jittery would-be analysts to fill in the blanks.
Indeed, the media’s imagination in this story is commendable for its comprehensiveness: It was terrorism! No, it was suicide! No, it was an asteroid! No, it’s a government conspiracy! And so forth.
For most onlookers, the Malaysian jet disappearance serves as a good old-fashioned mystery, sparking the natural human tendency to gather clues and eventually arrive at a resolution. In other words, a search for answers. The who, the what, the where and the how.
What’s missing is the why—the element that can only be assessed once all the other questions have been answered, and the element without which everything else is worthless. The why is what tells us what is so interesting about all these disparate facts in the first place, paving the way for a greater understanding about the world around us. In other words, the search for meaning.
On the matter of the missing plane, I would very much be interested to find out whether Flight 370 had been taken captive by a hijacker, or instead had merely fallen victim to bad weather or faulty equipment. I would be intrigued by the prospect of a government cover-up in the investigation of the plane’s trajectory and final resting place, and the ways the passengers’ family and friends have been left in the dark.
But here’s the thing: Thus far, we have been presented limited, if any, evidence that any of the above is actually the case. And we can’t interpret the facts until we know what the facts are.
For instance, if it turns out Flight 370 was hijacked by terrorists, we can have an international conversation about terrorism.
If it was a simple (or not-so-simple) mechanical malfunction, we can talk about mechanics.
If the Malaysian and/or Chinese governments have behaved improperly in the course of this ordeal, let us hold the culpable officials to account.
And if we never find out what really happened somewhere over the Indian Ocean on March 8, let us accept that not all mysteries can be solved and not every tragedy yields a take-home message.
In short: Less us calm the heck down.
Admittedly, this is not an easy thing for us humans to do. For mysteries big and small, we want answers and we want them now. We want to know that everything happens for a reason, and that even the most horrific events can be redeemed, however slightly, by the dissemination of the Truth. Nothing irritates us quite so much as a cold case, and the possibility that we may never find the answers we seek.
What makes this compulsion problematic is our national media, which prefers to report false information rather than no information at all, effectively jerking us around from one conspiracy theory to another for no good reason.
While America’s cable news networks may have jumped the shark permanently when it comes to hysterical coverage, we still have the option to ignore them. To resist the urge to draw meaning where there is none, and to glean answers from sources who don’t even ask the right questions.