My children are learning how to recognize, add, subtract and even multiply large numbers – by the power of ten. Each day, I overhear their teacher helping the students online to add a zero here or there, as they count and recount, read numbers and train their brains to recognize what is greater or less than. “Remember, the alligator always eats the larger number,” I hear her say early in the morning as I pour my coffee and my brain takes a rapid detour as I strangely contemplate the times when safety in numbers was not a guarantee at all.
Sometimes I find it remarkable when my kids get the number of zeros correct on her math questions; for as the numbers get larger, I find that I begin to gloss over in terms of accuracy. Which is why the number of Covid deaths, the number of wildfires, the sheer number of refugees, the number of votes needed, or the numbers that government officials toss around in terms of financial and political policy start to sound alike, even though there is a big difference between a million, a billion, and a trillion. I found myself wondering if I was impaired somehow since I could not begin to fathom such extreme numbers.
As of October 31, the number of Covid deaths around the world has reached 1,200,193 with the United States having 236,072 deaths. (see https://www.worldometers.info/ for real time data) How do we comprehend such numbers? For a while, death totals in the U.S. were compared to the World Trade Center deaths, Vietnam, and WWII. How do we mourn or lament or wrap our heads around such losses? As Mother Teresa once said, “If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.” There is a big difference between talking about numbers and experiencing a person. Which is why we can care so much when we see an image of one child who is hurting but feel less compassion when we see a chart or graph of phenomenal loss.
In a BBC article called, “What makes people stop caring?” Tiffanie Wen writes, “as statistical numbers associated with a tragedy get larger and larger, we become desensitized and have less of an emotional response to them. This in turn leaves us less likely to take the kind of action needed to stop genocides, send aid after natural disasters or pass legislation to fight global warming. In the case of the pandemic, it may be leading to a kind of apathy that is making people complacent about hand washing or wearing a mask – both of which have been shown to reduce transmission of the virus.”
Just as love is particular; every loss is particular. For every number, there is a family, a connection to the web of life, and a life filled with complexity, hopes, dreams, likes, dislikes, joys and miseries. Each number is a person, a human being who left his, her, or their mark on this world and those within it.
This is why we need to remember and ritually grieve the lives of those who have passed or who have suffered, so that we do not numb ourselves and stop caring, even and especially when our brains find it increasingly hard to take in such levels of loss. This is also why we must mark every absence so that we can be more present to the ones who remain. The way in which we grieve our personal and collective losses is important, just as the way in which we tell the story about those deaths. As Abel Herzberg once said, “There were not 6 million Jews murdered; there was one murder 6 million times.”
Paul Slovic, a psychologist at the University of Oregon has studied psychic numbing for a number of years. Slovic has said, “[our intuitive gut feeling] doesn’t deal with numbers in magnitude very well. If we’re talking about lives, one life is tremendously important and valuable and we’ll do anything to protect that life, save that life, rescue that person. But as the numbers increase, our feelings don’t commensurately increase as well.”
Lament is one way we continue to care. In the Christian tradition, taking the time to lament is not only important and necessary for individuals to grieve their private losses, but necessary for communities to come to terms with the absence of a person who was made in the image of God. Our collective grieving is similar to the “slower deliberate thinking” that Slovic recommends to counteract complacency, psychic numbing, and a seeming lack of concern or care.
On All Saints’ Day, we ritually remember and deliberately consider our losses. We take time personally to consider and remember the lives and stories of our loved ones and our friends, as we name them in our hearts. Even for those losses personally unknown to us, we remember and “see” the connections that people have had across the generations and across familial groups. This man was *her* husband; this woman was *her* niece; this child was *our* neighbor; this person was connected to that person who influenced *our* friend and we are thereby touched by the connection.
When we, as a church, declare that the saints are those living and dead who have taught us what it means to live and to love, we also simultaneously declare that every person has worth, dignity, and is known to God. We declare that life is not expendable; that we are not expendable whether we die in large numbers or small numbers, whether we die by war, virus, accident, harmful miscalculation, or natural causes. By lamenting together, we show up to care for and tend to each other. In so doing, we find our stumbling way through the pain and enormity of loss as a community of faith, thus acknowledging that together, we hurt and mourn for the absence of these.