By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm:
What happened to Flight 370? For more than two weeks the world has searched for answers. As of press time for this post, investigators have found debris that they believe marks the end of the flight in the Indian Ocean, but that is just prompting new, possibly unanswerable questions about why the plane veered so far off course. These initial and potentially continuing lack of answers has made the Malaysian flight story a very difficult one for us to handle. We like our stories to be nicely buttoned up as soon as possible. From Aristotle all the way to today's media, we are used to stories that have completion, resolution, and closure. There is a familiar structure that moves setting through conflict to resolution. So what happens if we never know exactly what happened? That is a practical question many media organizations have been asking. "What if the Missing Malaysia Plane is Never Found?" the title of a recent Huffington Post piece asked, before the most recent debris was found. "When something like this happens that confounds us, we're offended by it and we're scared by it," the piece quotes Ric Gillespie, a former U.S. aviation accident investigator. "We had the illusion of control and it's just been shown to us that oh, folks, you know what? A really big airliner can just vanish. And nobody wants to hear that."
What also has confounded us for the past 15 days, though, is the lack of ending. When families receive bad news about a missing person, it is often said, "At least they know now what happened. At least they have closure." Withholding that closure prevents us from packaging, naming, and storing the experience. Litigators are also storytellers, and also want their stories to be complete. Still, particularly in law, there are unknowns that might never be resolved. That runs up against a need for closure that I've written about before, noting that it is a measurable psychological trait, and also a state that can be influenced by how we tell the story in the first place. This latest example of a possible story without a natural ending prompts for me the questions: "What exactly is closure?" and "How can litigators and other storytellers refashion closure when they're denied a natural and factual ending point?"