There was a girl, and her uncle sold her. A quote on life and numbers


Today I did my periodic scanning of the news, something I do once in a while here when I’m able to get WiFi, and since those days have been spaced out in weeks recently due to bad connections and me travelling (quite willingly) to the most remote places, the news pile up and it turns jnto an even more it’s grim and shocking exercice. Today it was more news of refugees let down by quotas in Europe, earthquake in Pakistan and Afghanistan with growing numbers of deaths and injuries, election results in Switzerland that will surely lead to more xenophobic and self-centered laws I’m the near future and you probably know the rest already, this is just a small sample.

I thought about individual lives in those great tragedies, how media will go for the most sensational picture (passing through Kathmandu a few days ago was a striking reminder of it, as most of the city is holding together, despite what we could see in the news at the time of the earthquake, and it saddens me that it seems we all need the grimmest picture to get some interest, even if a more faithfull one would still have meant destruction of thousands of houses in that case), how quickly we loose interest and go back to our lives – or the ones of our direct neighbours, how fickle we are in front of it all.

It made me think of this quote – well, a rather long one – from Neil Gaiman, in American Gods, where he says it best, as he always seem to be. (I’m rather a fan of every single thing he has ever written, I think). Don’t want to spoil the simple force of it, so I’ll let you with it, and go back to my individual, rather similar, rather unique, life.

There was a girl, and her uncle sold her. Put like that it seems so simple.
No man, proclaimed Donne, is an island, and he was wrong. If we were not islands, we would be lost, drowned in each other’s tragedies. We are insulated (a word that means, literally, remember, made into an island) from the tragedy of others, by our island nature and by the repetitive shape and form of the stories. The shape does not change: there was a human being who was born, lived and then by some means or other, died. There. You may fill in the details from your own experience. As unoriginal as any other tale, as unique as any other life. Lives are snowflakes – forming patterns we have seen before, as like one another as peas in a pod (and have you ever looked at peas in a pod? I mean, really looked at them? There’s not a chance you’ll mistake one for another, after a minute’s close inspection) but still unique.

Without individuals we see only numbers, a thousand dead, a hundred thousand dead, “casualties may rise to a million.” With individual stories, the statistics become people- but even that is a lie, for the people continue to suffer in numbers that themselves are numbing and meaningless. Look, see the child’s swollen, swollen belly and the flies that crawl at the corners of his eyes, this skeletal limbs: will it make it easier for you to know his name, his age, his dreams, his fears? To see him from the inside? And if it does, are we not doing a disservice to his sister, who lies in the searing dust beside him, a distorted distended caricature of a human child? And there, if we feel for them, are they now more important to us than a thousand other children touched by the same famine, a thousand other young lives who will soon be food for the flies’ own myriad squirming children?

We draw our lines around these moments of pain, remain upon our islands, and they cannot hurt us. They are covered with a smooth, safe, nacreous layer to let them slip, pearllike, from our souls without real pain.
Fiction allows us to slide into these other heads, these other places, and look out through other eyes. And then in the tale we stop before we die, or we die vicariously and unharmed, and in the world beyond the tale we turn the page or close the book, and we resume our lives.
A life that is, like any other, unlike any other.
And the simple truth is this: There was a girl, and her uncle sold her.


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