Necessarily Callous

Current figures suggest that more than 22,000 perished in Myanmar (Burma) this weekend. Now the story seems to be the most consequential in the world.

Yesterday’s figures suggested that more than 350 perished in Myanmar (Burma) this weekend. Then the story seemed like a regrettable natural disaster.

There’s that old axiom, attributed to Josef Stalin, that “one death is a tragedy, one million is a statistic.” I think there’s undeniably something to that. But I also can’t deny that I’m staring in the face two different numbers that make two very different impressions on me. In this cases, 20,000 deaths are a tragedy and 300 is a statistic.

It’s an ugly truth that I willfully ignore disasters when damage estimates are small. Unless you know someone who lives near the site of a natural disaster, it’s easy to ignore all the reports of earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, and tsunamis. It’s probably smart not to get too worked up over natural disasters we humans, by definition, have no ability to control. It may even be wise.

And yet I can’t escape the fact that doing so seems terribly, inhumanely callous.

People who’ve known hard labor know calluses. That toughening of the skin so that the pressure so often put upon it starts to cause no injury. Perhaps even no feeling. The toughening can be unsightly, but it’s the body’s natural and necessary response to pressures that would otherwise cause tissues to rip and bleed. Given the choice between a callus and an injury requiring attention and rest, our bodies will usually choose to toughen rather than tear.

Perhaps, in our concern for the welfare of others, we need a similar amount of callousness. A similar detachment and unconcern that allows us to get on with what needs doing in our lives. That allows us to get up after hearing about five American deaths in Afghanistan, or the death of 30 Iraqis in an explosion, or 20 in a tsunami, or one in an industrial accident.

We have no time to mourn all these losses. We cannot, perhaps, spare the time and energy to consider, regret, and mourn every loss of life anywhere in the world. We cannot even spare the time and energy to mourn every loss of a fellow citizen of our country. Or even of every loss of a fellow citizen of the city, province, or state in which we live. Sometimes, it seems like we don’t even have the ability to mourn those family member we lose.

I see the necessity of this callousness. I think it makes good practical sense as a means of survival. But that doesn’t make me any less disappointed to notice it within myself or others. Any less sure that it’s wrong to stare at immense loss and be unable to shed even a tear. Any less disappointed that I only see a tragedy when the death toll reaches 22,000. Any less sure that 350 is a tragedy. Any less disappointed when I overlook the tragedy of one.


2 responses to “Necessarily Callous”

  1. you just can’t win when it comes to human suffering. but caring is necessary to being human just like the body healing itself is.