As of today, 2.65 million people across the world have died from Covid-19, half a million of them in the US. In his speech Thursday night, President Biden tried to come up with a comparison that would help us comprehend those numbers:
“This is as many people as died in World Wars I and II, the Vietnam War, and Sept 11th,” Biden said trying to drive home the scope of the tragedy. After he was done speaking, journalists began their commentary and at one point they began to quibble about Biden’s comparison.
“It depends on what deaths you are counting.” they argued. “Were these ‘in-theater’ deaths from actual combat or ‘in-service’ deaths which would include the deaths of troops from illness or other causes? Because if you total all of the in-service deaths from the two World Wars, Vietnam, and Sept 11th, the number is closer to 600,000 which is 100,000 more than have died of Covid in the U.S.”
“I think you should only count troops who died in combat,” one said, “in which case there were about 300,000 deaths which is less than the number of Covid fatalities.”
“But why,” another argued, “would you include the dead of September 11th? That wasn’t even a war so I don’t think those victims should be part of the count.” (1)
As I listened to those commentaries, I was struck by the futility of the conversation. Biden was attempting to give us a framework for understanding the number “500,000” but in the end, it didn’t matter which wars he included in the tally, or whether he added the victims of September 11th, or even if he had chosen to throw in the number of people who have died from rooster attacks because once you get into the hundreds of thousands, our brains can’t make sense of the reality of numbers so large. At a certain number, humanity becomes reduced to a faceless swarm.
In 1916, during a period of war and upheaval in China, more than six million Chinese peasants died of starvation. A journalist for a San Francisco paper wrote, “There is double the pathos for us in the death of one little New York waif from hunger than there is in a million deaths from famine in China. It is not,” he said, “that distance glosses over the terrible picture of the Chinese horror, or that a feeling of national kinship with the waif impresses us the more sincerely with his plight. It is merely that the mind is unable to grasp a suffering in the gross. Suffering is so intimately personal a thing that it must be explained through the personal equation, if at all.” (2)
President Biden’s attempts notwithstanding, the reality is that whether 300,000 or 500,000 or a million people die of Covid in the US, our brains will interpret any of those numbers as simply, “a lot.” The anguish of the pandemic for us lies not in numbers and statistics but in the grief of people we know, in the names of friends and neighbors in the obituary columns, in the Facebook posts of people whose fathers and mothers have been hospitalized because of Covid, in the grandchildren born but not seen because of quarantine, in the businesses shuttered in our towns, and in the quiet of our sanctuary where singing is no longer heard. Our hearts are moved by the personal; our sorrow rises not from numbers, no matter how overwhelming, but from the pain of individuals with whom we share the living of our days. As that 20th century journalist said, “Suffering is so intimately personal a thing that it must be explained through the personal equation.”
And what is true of suffering is also true of hope. Hope is also so intimately personal a thing that it must be explained through the personal equation. Though the government and media try to encourage us with the large numbers of vaccines that have been administered, our hearts aren’t lifted by those statistics but by the hands that are raised when I ask at Book Group, “Who has gotten their Covid shot?” We are cheered by the sight of filled tables again at our favorite local restaurants, or by the health care worker next door whose face looks more relaxed than we have seen it in months. As human beings, we innately measure both tragedy and hope on the smallest scale: by the way it affects the individuals around us.
It is strange, then, that while suffering and hope are grounded for us in the personal, when we think about the meaning of our own lives, we often discount our personal efforts because we think they are too small to be consequential.
“What can I do that will make any difference in the world,” we ask, “when I am no more than a gnat in a swarm?” as if the only meaningful life is the one that can affect the fates of hundreds of thousands of people. We volunteer and speak out against injustice and give our money and our resources to care for the suffering but then we are filled with despair because hundreds of thousands of people remain hungry and peace is so hard to find in spite of what we have accomplished. What did our small efforts matter? we wonder. Why even bother? we lament. What difference can one life make in the great mass of human trouble?
We grieve and we hope on a personal scale but we insist on measuring the meaning of our own lives on a scale too large for any human heart to comprehend.
When Jesus called his disciples to him and asked them to dedicate themselves to the work of bringing hope and healing to the world, it appears that his disciples must like us also have wondered what difference any one of their individual lives could make in the vast mass of humanity because in his preaching, Jesus constantly hammered home the importance of every single act of love no matter how small. When we love as God calls us to love, he said, our small lives can have huge ramifications that we may not even be able to see. God’s realm of compassion and justice, he told us, is built on the foundation of those small acts of innumerable committed disciples.
“With what can we compare the kingdom of God,” Jesus said, “or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
God’s realm of compassion and justice is built on the foundation of mustard seeds — of small acts of innumerable committed disciples like us who understand that hope is grounded in the personal; that every single act of compassion, mercy, generosity, and grace is an act that brings God’s realm into reality. Not a sparrow falls to the earth, the Bible says, without God’s heart being moved on its behalf and so for God, there is not difference between the numbers 1 and one million. To relieve the hunger of one person is for God to relieve the hunger of the world, and the healing of the world begins in the healing of a single person. Christ assures us that every small moment of kindness, every word we speak for justice, every singular act of compassion, every time we forgive or care or reach out to comfort a hurting heart is a mustard seed that will grow to provide rest and shade for a weary world.
We grieve and we hope on a personal scale and it is on the personal scale that we find the meaning of our lives.
One of my favorite writers, Loren Eisley, wrote a book called The Star Thrower, a collection of nature essays which he introduces with a story about meeting a man on a beach during a walk one day. The man was picking up a starfish from the sand.
“[The] starfish had thrust its arms up stiffly and was holding its body away from the stifling mud,” Eisley writes.
‘It’s still alive,’ I ventured.
‘Yes,’ [the man] said, and with a quick yet gentle movement he picked up the star and spun it over my head and far out into the sea. It sunk in a burst of spume, and the waters roared once more….
“The stars,” he said, “throw well. One can help them.”
Eisley admits that he was baffled by the man’s persistent commitment to the starfish given their unrelenting numbers on the beach, and he shakes his head over such a meaningless pursuit. Eisley follows this introduction to his book with 16 essays in which he explores the beauty of nature and marvels at its creation. He ends the book by returning to the beach.
“On a point of land, I found the star thrower…” he writes. “I spoke once briefly.
‘I understand,’ I said [to him]. ‘Call me another thrower.’
Only then I allowed myself to think, ‘He is not alone any longer. [And] After us, there will be others… Perhaps far outward on the rim of space a genuine star was similarly seized and flung….
For a moment, we cast on an infinite beach together beside an unknown hurler of suns…”
We stand together beside the infinite eternal God healing the world one person at a time. Just as we grieve and hope on a personal scale; it is on the personal scale — in the small acts of compassion and support — that we discover the meaning of our lives.
1. This is a compilation of several commentaries and articles from a number of sources following Biden’s speech.
2. 1916 May 1, The Blast, Volume 1, Number 12, Edited by Alexander Berkman, A Timely Thought, Quote Page 104, Column 2, (Page 6 in original publication), San Francisco, California. Reprinted in 2005 by AK Press, Oakland, California.