The Checkerboard


One man's death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic.



The quote above is often attributed to Joseph Stalin - one of the 20th century's most brutal dictators - and, for that reason, it might be easy for us to toss aside as the rantings of a man whose regime was responsible for millions of deaths. But that wouldn't be honest. Deep down, I think, we all know it to be true. Let's think about it: anyone who values human life can agree that a person's death is a tragedy. So what does that make a million deaths: a million tragedies? How can the human mind and heart even process a million tragedies? The truth is we can't, and that's what this quote is getting at: that at some point the horror all becomes too much and we just have to process it differently. This is true for most of us: I can process a little girl who has lost her father as a profound tragedy. But if I start to think about that type of loss in greater numbers, at some point I lack the will or ability to feel grief on that level. Psychologists refer to this phenomenon as "the collapse of compassion." Ultimately, we're only capable of processing so much grief. At some point, if we really try to take in all of the tragedy around us, we become overwhelmed. We have to compartmentalize it some other way, so we chalk it up to the mathematics of a messed up world. Dozens are Killed in a Drone Strike. "How sad." Thousands Die in a Hurricane. "Oh my goodness." Millions Fall Victim to Human Trafficking. "Those poor people..." But do we really feel it? Not really. How could we? It would all be too much.




I got a a little bit of an insight into this when my wife and I made one of our frequent trips down to Washington, D.C. to visit our favorite museum there: the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery and American Art Museum. Check it out next time you're in the area. Currently they have an exhibit going on entitled "The Face of Battle: Americans at War, 9/11 to Now." We walked through the various installations, somberly absorbing the art and portraiture. Then we came into a room with checkered walls. As we looked closer, we saw that each of the thousands of squares contained a hand-drawn portrait of a soldier drawn by artist Emily Prince. My wife and I looked through many of the individual faces - reading their hand-written stories - before I came across a description of the installation: American Servicemen and Women Who Have Died in Iraq and Afghanistan. To my surprise, I instantly began to weep. I was no longer looking at thousands of checkers; I was overwhelmed by 5,213 tragedies. Having already seen many of their faces and stories, I took a step back and tried to take it all in. So many dead... It was all too much.


Since then I've been thinking a lot more about how we view each other. The culture in our country and in our world right now - the compassion has collapsed. We don't see each other as people anymore. We don't feel pain at someone else's suffering. Instead, we've compartmentalized by living in our own individual bubbles. Rather than making us more connected, the internet has allowed us to filter the world through our own particular tastes and preferences so that we exist in a constant feedback loop that only reinforces what we already think, making us more entrenched and more detached. From that perspective, the world turns into a checkerboard of easy labels. Believer. Unbeliever. Trump supporter. Trump hater. Red Team. Blue Team. Good guy. Bad guy. Whatever.


Trying to take in all of the craziness and pain that's going on in the world right now is just too much. Instead, I'm challenging myself to really focus in on the people near me. People I don't know much about. To talk to them. To hear their story. To take a good look at them and see them for more than the label that's been placed on them. Because one person's death is a tragedy. But in today's culture, actually taking the time to feel someone's pain - allowing them to share their burdens with you - that's a miracle.

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