Is It Wrong to Feel Emotion for Someone You've Never Met?

Why writers, like daters, fall for constructs in their brains

Posted May 15, 2018

Fumiste Studios
Source: Fumiste Studios

I get emotionally involved with people I don’t know, whom I’ve never met and who, in the instances I’m writing about, died some time ago. And I’m really not sure if this is healthy, or not.

It happens in this way. I write books, and while I usually try to avoid writing about the same things, it so happens that the last two books have both focused on shipwrecks.

The most recent is a work of non-fiction but also a mystery of sorts: to figure out what happened to the SS El Faro, a huge American cargo ship, as long as an eighty-story skyscraper is tall, that vanished in Hurricane Joaquin off the Bahamas in October, 2015. Her entire crew of 33 perished with her.

The book before that was about navigation, in general—how we find our way in the world, from cells to spaceships—but it focused on my great-great-grandfather, a Norwegian sea captain named Halvor Michelsen, who drowned when his sailing coaster sank in a winter storm off the coast of Norway in 1847.

In both cases I did a ton of research, on the ships and circumstances of course, but also on the people. And as I got to know them; as I read Halvor’s letters, and talked to family members who recalled stories about him; as I interviewed families and friends of the officers and crew of El Faro; above all, as I read the transcript of that ship’s black box, which recorded conversations on her bridge for 26 hours leading up to the sinking; I started to actually feel something for them, I began to like these people more and more. And the more I liked them, the sadder I got, because all had died young or in the prime of life, in terrifying circumstances, leaving behind a wide network of loved ones.

There doesn’t seem to be much science or even discussion available on the process of becoming emotionally attached to someone you’ve never met. Virtually all of what I’ve seen has arisen as a function of Internet dating. A post by Mark D. White, PhD (“Maybe It’s Just Me, But ...”) on his Psychology Today page discusses people who start to fall in love with someone they’ve never met, and whom they know only from online communication. It concludes that, while crucial data on another person can only come from physically meeting them, it is still possible, and even desirable under certain circumstances, to begin the process knowing only what can be gleaned through chats, texts, and emails; and that process includes affection—the beginnings, even, of love.

A novel from the 1970s, 84 Charing Cross Road, about a purely epistolary—ie., letter based—friendship, shows that the same sort of thing happened before Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Certainly the human imagination is powerful enough to feel affection for people we build solely out of the various data in our head. Novels, after all, are based on this principle—who hasn’t read a book with a character so engaging we feel we know her, or him, and care for that person too? I still feel sad about losing Robert Jordan, in a sabotage attempt in the Spanish Civil War, at the end of Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. I remember, as a kid who loved Tolkien’s The Hobbit, refusing to read Lord of the Rings for fear Bilbo would meet his doom in the subsequent trilogy. That was how much I loved Bilbo.

Film and video of course involve the same process, enhanced in this case by visual data unavailable to letter readers. The murder of Zoe Barnes, the journalist in the US version of "House of Cards"—on whom I’d developed a serious crush—left me feeling so rotten I stopped watching the series for three months.

Mourning, too—of real people, humans we have known in the flesh—is based on this process. Part of the shock of raw grief lies in our emotional conviction that the person who’s just died is not dead at all but still alive in our thoughts, our feelings, in every hour of our daily lives. Sometimes the conviction can be so powerful that we mistake a stranger for the one who’s gone, or hear her voice in the tones of someone else’s conversation, or feel an absolute, if fleeting, certainty that the dead person is in the next room. Here the emotions tend to be that much more powerful because we knew the person intimately, on an immediate, tangible level, and have a near-infinite set of memories, many of them sense-based, to draw upon in remembering him, or her.

But in all cases we are living with this reality: even when we saw the person often, even when we lived with her, or him, we were spending at least as much time with the construct we built in our imagination as with the flesh-and-blood human. For example, when you’re married to someone, you typically spend a third of your week sleeping and another third working away from home, so that your spouse ends up being, statistically speaking, someone you imagine more than physically interact with. This is even truer of people you don’t live with. In this case, the overwhelmingly greatest portion of our lives as friend, as family member, consists of a relationship with someone present exclusively in our forebrains.

The only difference, when someone we know has died, is that we can no longer update the information in our imaginative memory banks; we can no longer add new data.

And the only difference, when we never met the person, is that the (admittedly vast) quantities of information gleaned from our sense-perceptions of a given person are missing, replaced by what we hear about them from others.

The crushing contradiction between our feelings for someone we know rationally we will never see again, and our perfectly rational awareness that the the person who is physically gone is still living and present in our brains, is something that a balanced psyche learns to live with over time, and finally accept as one of the gifts that life, and the human imagination, confer.

Obviously there can also be a downside to a relationship with someone dead, or who never actually existed, if it continues too strongly for too long, and especially if it starts to interfere with or preclude relationships with the living, the touchable. Like any obsession--like the obsessive interest in a departed lover--it can be a symptom of imbalance in other areas; extreme lack of social connections, or an addictive or obsessive personality disorder, all of which are best dealt with by seeking help.

But, obsession apart, there is a curiously comforting aspect to the realization that someone who is gone remains, in a completely real sense, still present--especially for those who discount religion and associated bunkum about heaven, ghosts and angels--for it gives a new and scientifically cogent meaning to the idea of an afterlife. And who doesn't want to live after death?