The value of human life is a numbers game

Does your life really matter?

This is a question posed by Annie Dillard’s cover story, “Wreck of Time: taking our century’s measure” in the January 1998 issue of Harper’s Weekly.

My mind was pulled back to this article while pondering the Asian tsunami. I hadn’t looked at the article since reading it seven years ago as a high school senior. I revisited it because there was a phrase that haunted me then and does even more now.

Dillard wrote, “On April 30, 1991-on that one day-138,000 people drowned in Bangladesh.”

She then relates how she tried explaining the tragedy to her 7-year-old daughter. She told her daughter it was difficult imagining the death of 138,000 people. I have heard this anecdote and the daughter’s reply quoted in reference to the recent tsunami. The daughter replied, “No, it’s easy. Lots and lots of dots, in blue water.”

I had never heard about that flood. I was only nine years old in 1991 and didn’t follow the news. But I couldn’t believe that many people had died on one day and no one had remembered it enough to teach me about it in school.

Ironically, Dillard’s article was all about the forgotten dead. At the time the article was printed she estimated the dead to outnumber the living by 14 to one. The article forces one to ponder why we living think we are so damn important.

She asks, “Is it important if you have yet died your death, or I? Your father? Your child? It is only a matter of time, after all. Why do we find it supremely pertinent, during any moment of any century on earth, which among us is topsides? Why do we concern ourselves over which side of the membrane of topsoil our feet poke?”

At age 17, I found something comforting about the idea of my individuality being insignificant. I was scared about joining the real world, scared of being forced to sink or swim. After reading this article I thought, “What difference does it make anyway?”

But there was still some part of me, as there is in every human, that hated thinking my life was insignificant.

What is this value of life we insist exists and is great?

After revisiting Dillard’s article, now with a college education under my belt, I realized she’s playing the devil’s advocate. She begins by using Ted Bundy’s amazement at the fuss made over his killings when so many people die. Later she quotes Joseph Stalin saying, “A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.” She concludes by quoting Chinese communist leader Mao Tse-tung saying he did not fear the atomic bomb because China could endure the death of millions of people.

Life only seems insignificant when one focuses on the masses instead of the individuals.

The tsunami killed close to 200,000 individuals.

It’s easy to care about, open our wallets for and share our abundance with individuals. We did just that during the December holidays. Now we’re being asked to do it some more for the people in Asia.

I, for one, was frustrated at the timing of the tsunami. I had already spent all my money and given large donations to charities, so I didn’t have more to give.

The tsunami came when our hearts were the most full-and our pocketbooks the most empty. But the individuals in Asia continue to suffer and most of us U students will continue to work at our jobs. Let’s remember the tsunami victims after receiving future paychecks.

Each one of those many dots floating in blue water was loved and needed by people like you and me.

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