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Of Numbers and Islands (2/6/21)



Like me, you may have heard news lately about the human tendency toward numbness, as deaths of our fellow human-animals increase. As I write, 460,000 Americans have died in less than 1 year from COVID-19 -- likely an undercount. Yet too many citizens, and leaders, won’t take the simple precaution of wearing a mask in public. It’s as if all those deaths aren’t specific persons, or meaningful as “part of the main.” John Donne wrote Meditation 17 (“no man is an island”) when he was seriously ill in 1624 (“Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions”).


But how many islands can we perceive, and feel something toward? Until the disease kills someone very close to us, we seem able to hold COVID numbers as an abstraction.

Exactly how many persons’ dying does it take, I wondered, to move our psyches from empathy to abstraction?


Was Hurricane Katrina, with 1200-1800 dead, only so horrifying because so much was videotaped, and those images wouldn’t let us numb ourselves? Was the fact that we didn’t see hundreds of thousands of Rwandans, mostly Tutsis, murdered in just 100 days in 1994, why we Americans didn’t rise up in sympathy, empathy, or action? Or did they not look enough like our majority population?


Wasn’t the genocide in Cambodia under Pol Pot (1.5-2 million people) as or more horrifying as the threat of a ‘domino-effect’ of Communism in Southeast Asia, which had led us into war in Vietnam? It’s all so hard to understand.


When I remember my friends who died of AIDS, so specific, so talented and beautiful and beloved, am I yet abstracting that pandemic’s 700,000 American deaths to-date – each one a friend, lover, family member, beloved by someone? How about “only” 85 fatalities in the Camp Fire in Paradise, California, just a few years ago? Or “only” 37 in the F5 tornado in Minnesota in 1883, that led to the creation of the Mayo Clinic? [1]


What number, I wondered, tips that overwhelm into caring fatigue?


I found a study led by Dr. Paul Slovic that uses the term “compassion fade.” [2] He and his investigators hypothesized that the fade “may begin as early as with the second endangered life.” (How was that possible -- only more-than-one? I thought.) Yet, in measuring participants’ compassion when viewing a starving child and groups of starving children -- by their impulses to make monetary donations and changes in facial muscles (measures of affect) -- all it took was ONE MORE THAN ONE needy child, for their responses to plunge.


I can’t stop thinking and wondering about this.


On the news, we don’t hear about every solo traffic fatality. We hear about the 5 family members killed in their van by a drunk driver going the wrong way. We feel gutted by the 5 of them, right? And maybe 2 more at home, who couldn’t make that simple trip, for some reason, now left to grieve? Not one of them was “an island” by Donne’s metaphor. Yet their more-than-one numbers make them news-worthy.


The other night, I pulled into Excel all my 2020 donations for my tax-guy, Nick. I was surprised to find that I had donated twice, within a few days, to the same organization through Facebook’s ‘birthday causes,’ for two different friends’ birthdays. I do not remember feeling generous or extra-compassionate at the time; my pandemic/isolation/lack-of-human-touch brain can’t remember as much, generally.


Looking at my spreadsheet, I had absolutely no quarrel with donating twice to Mental Health support organizations.


An aunt, a cousin, a brother’s best friend and best-man, my high-school senior-class advisor, and way too many others, might have benefited from such organizations, before they made their individual, fatal decisions. Which decisions, for what it’s worth, I don’t necessarily consider pathological. More a matter of profound, possibly imaginable suffering, and a decision to end that suffering. One island-while-also-part-of-the-main, at a time.


Mrs. J., our senior-class advisor, pulled her bright-blue Corvette to a screeching halt on the day of our Bike-a-thon for Cystic Fibrosis. "Come with me, Mary - hop in," she said. I crouched down to sit - nearly on the ground - in her passenger bucket-seat. "Wow, nice car," I said. (I would be 28 before I could afford my first car, an ancient Chevette.)


"Yeah, well, the insurance ain't so nice," she said, then laughed. Her front teeth overlapped slightly -- my favorite part of her.


Car insurance. There was so much to learn about being a grown-up, I thought. We picked up some more disposable cups for the Bike-a-thon, while we talked about future goals, between us. Mrs. J. had not yet announced that she was pregnant, and that our graduation year would be her last for teaching, at least for a while. (We would soon celebrate that news as if our class, as individuals, would produce a pretty, thick-haired, over-lapping-toothed child.)


Cystic Fibrosis - even on that day of the fundraiser - remained somewhat abstract for me, in spite of the video our committee had watched. I would not understand the impact on any individual until my first semester of college in Charlottesville, with a hallmate, Liz, who suffered from that unforgiving, inheritable disease. Our RA had been taught how to pound Liz's back on an inclined wooden board every night, to dislodge the mucus that accumulated in Liz's lungs every day.


Liz died soon after winter break of our first year. Her parents had been so grateful that their daughter survived long enough to attend even one semester of college.


A few years later, when I worked as a Teacher Aide at the Children's Rehab Center, I found Liz's medical chart in the Education office file cabinet. The special-ed teachers I supported remembered Liz fondly. I excused myself to go to the bathroom, overwhelmed, some time after her death, by the fact of her death. By then I'd met a handful of other individuals, teenagers of idiosyncratic personalities and approaches to their conditions, who would come in-house periodically, each of whom knew their life-expectancies didn't extend past around age 25.


In my 4th year of college, my roommate Kelly and I got a visit from Chris, who had been our high-school class president. She shared the news about Mrs. J. "I wanted to tell you in person."

Our high-school senior-class advisor had taken her own life after she drove her two little boys into the woods and shot them dead (from behind, I've always hoped) so to "save them from the demon that wanted their souls." (Please let it be that she shot them from behind, without their seeing their mother aiming a rifle at them?) She had been given a day-pass from a psychiatric hospital, as an in-patient diagnosed with post-partum depression.


The three of their deaths made that news from Chris no more or less traumatic.


Mrs. J.'s surviving widower, now childless, died a decade later in a motorcycle accident.


As a young kid, I held such fascination with a single, fallen, light-blue robin’s eggshell, now empty and mysterious in its emptiness.


Or a fallen and curling, darkening lilac blossom - or two or few – in the grass.


Even the very angle of sunlight, as summer days grew shorter and everything started to smell like school. Meaningful, if mysteriously so.


One lone iteration of the whole of a life, the days and end of a life, could hold the whole of a phenomenon for every life, I thought. I tried to let myself feel and let its wholeness wash over and through me, a tiny part of the main, however I felt underprepared to understand. If nothing else, I’ve learned to let the feelings wash over and through me, with or without understanding, but with gratitude. And I'm still here to let the feelings wash. Amazing. Unearned. Mysterious.


But I digress.


I think.


Stay safe, all who find your way here. It's just a mask, just a matter of patience. The numbers are so painful and, from all reports, grown far too abstract enough to let us absorb and act on that pain. One island not-an-island and nicknamed Muffin, will be even more grateful as we transit through 2021.


1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_disasters_in_the_United_States_by_death_toll

2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4062481/

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