(First published in The Dominion Post, December 12.)
I think it was the British psychiatrist and writer Theodore Dalrymple who coined the term “emotional incontinence” to describe mass displays of extravagant grief.Dalrymple wasn’t referring to the neurological disorder of that name, but a sociological phenomenon that was first noted in the aftermath of Princess Diana’s death.
On that occasion the traditionally stoical British public indulged in an uncharacteristic outpouring of mawkish sentimentality, gathering in the streets to weep on each other’s shoulders at impromptu shrines decorated with teddy bears. (Why teddy bears? You tell me.)Until recently, that public grief-fest stood as the high-water mark of emotional incontinence. But astonishingly, Australians may have outdone the Brits with their reaction to the death of the cricketer Phillip Hughes.
I say “astonishingly” because Australia likes to think of itself as tough and resilient; a larrikin society where hard men in the tradition of Ned Kelly, Jimmy Spithill, Steve Irwin, Dennis Lillee and the fictional Crocodile Dundee spit in the eye of adversity.But now the secret is out. Australia’s soft emotional underbelly has been exposed.
Hughes’ death not only triggered an overblown media frenzy that continues almost unabated after two weeks, but seemed to reduce some of his fellow players to gibbering wrecks. Who would have thought Australian cricketers were so emotionally fragile?Counsellors were working with Australian teams, we were told. Some players might never pad up again.
So traumatised were the Australian players that on the day before this week’s postponed test match against India began, there was still doubt as to whether some would be fit to take the field.Most memorably, we saw the Australian captain, Michael Clarke breaking down like an overwrought teenager.
“We must dig in and get through to tea,” a quivering Clarke told mourners at Hughes’ funeral, in what sounded suspiciously like a line composed by a PR hack to wring maximum sentiment from the occasion.We hear a lot these days about PDAs – public displays of affection, usually involving celebrity couples, that are criticised as exercises in attention-seeking. I wonder if intemperate public displays of grief should be similarly discouraged.
Certainly, it’s hard to escape the feeling that such displays are often less about the dead than the living.Deaths happen in sport – most notably in motor racing, where fellow drivers do their grieving in private and move on.
Strangely enough, I don’t recall Australia’s jockeys being so psychologically damaged by the deaths of two female colleagues in separate accidents in October, only weeks before the Hughes incident, that they cancelled all riding engagements. Jockeys, like racing drivers, must be made of sterner stuff than cricketers.The grieving for Hughes wasn't just excessive to the point of self-indulgence; it was hypocritical too. As sports columnist Mark Reason pointed out in this paper, it was Michael Clarke who told an English batsman last year, “Face up – get ready for a broken f***ing arm”.
The Australian captain clearly loves to indulge in macho sledging, enjoys pumping up the intimidation, but goes to pieces when a teammate dies as a direct result of gladiatorial aggression on the field. Can he join the dots, or does his ego get in the way?Of course social media had to get in on the act too, with a mass exercise in dribbling self-pity called Put Out Your Bats, the originator of which – a man so psychologically frail that he burst into tears when he heard of Hughes’ death – was lauded in the Australian media as a hero and a celebrity in his own right.
The Put Out Your Bats campaign captured perfectly the spirit of the social media era. It required little of its participants and achieved nothing beyond making them feel good for having engaged in what they no doubt thought was some sort of profound communal act of catharsis.To be sure, Hughes’ death was a tragedy – not so much because it robbed Australia of a great cricketing talent, but because every life taken prematurely is a tragedy.
More than anyone, his family would have been grieving, but significantly we heard virtually nothing about them. It was all about the game and its cosseted, self-absorbed stars.In the same week that Hughes died, my wife lost a much-loved sister. She nursed her in her final days and was with her when she breathed her last.
Bereavement didn’t leave my wife in a state of abject helplessness. The day after we held a farewell ceremony for her sister, she was back at work. That’s what people do in the real world. They just get on with things.