April 25th, 2008


where to put the effort

Joseph Stalin said

One death is a tragedy; a million is a statistic.

He hit upon a real truth. Psychologically we start to turn off our empathy when the body count rises above two, as I recall. A very small number. We can't cope with large numbers. We can't comprehend them.

So it is with all of the causes crying for attention in my inbox. I try to focus, to pay attention, to each one, but as time goes on it blurs and I frequently delete delete delete without even reading. It's especially distressing when the mail is from

wilderness society (polar bears recently)
oxfam america

and it goes on and on. There are so many critical needs. I am awash in them. And I admit I am not hopping on any trains or planes to help any of them. The most I do is sign petitions, write letters, send money. And I don't do that often enough. Yet at the same time I recognize that because drawing attention to a subject is so easy and inexpensive with email and websites and with petitions automated so all you have to do is click a button, the messages we send are not as loud as we might hope. It's harder, even though it's easier, to get someone's attention.

I struggle with how to divide my efforts. I will probably continue as I have, grabbing at causes somewhat randomly, focusing my efforts more on saving people and animals from real danger than on letting people know what McCain actually said back then. At the same time my sense of justice is such that I support all efforts at impeachment, thinking of the larger goal: an understanding that nobody is above the law, a realization that actions have consequences. Impeachment proceedings should also put more emphasis on U.S.-sponsored torture and raise awareness that this country does not tolerate it.

I don't consider other "causes" less important. They are just, right now, less important to me.


This morning I was reading Eleni, the true story of the author Nicholas Gage's mother, who was executed in Greece in 1949, when her village was run by Communists. The story is a blend of the writer's absolute knowledge and his imagination, somewhat in the tradition of In Cold Blood (Capote) and The Executioner's Song (Mailer). One reviewer refers to it as a work of "faction", a term I do not care to use, but which suggests that Gage draws upon both his investigative and his literary skills.

The book was first published in 1983. When I read that date I thought back to what I was doing that year. I was living in Los Osos, in an apartment I had let get away from me (to say the least). I was commuting to SLO every day, bringing my daughters to school there as well. Our lives were busy but I can't say they were wonderful. I felt frustrated with myself, as I have admitted here more than once, because I couldn't get a handle on my life. It was lurching away from me, pulling me as if by a rope, never letting me stop to sort it out. I guess it isn't a surprise that I did not hear of this book.

I mention this because the book is every bit as relevant to today's world as it was to the world in 1984 or, for that matter, 1940 to 1949, the period when Gage's mother Eleni was struggling against the tide of civil war in the little mountain village of Lia. It is the kind of book that brings home the numbers. When we hear of villages burning and hundreds shot we find it hard to take in, to connect to our everyday lives.

I found it especially meaningful as I rode my bike along a nearby bike trail a short while ago. The day was warm, the trail well-used by runners, walkers, and cyclists. All was right with the world. I couldn't help but think about an episode in the book: a small group of English officers enter Lia with the intent of bringing two rival resistance groups together to fight a common enemy, the Germans. The villagers wake to see them running up the hillsides. Afraid that the Germans are coming, the villagers run after them. The Englishmen, however, were simply "taking their exercise", a concept unknown to these villagers. I felt a bit like the Englishmen out on the bike path, riding simply for recreation and health, while people in other parts of the world would only be able to stare uncomprendingly at such behavior. I thought about the daily lives of the citizens of Iraq, of Darfur, of China and Tibet. For that matter, residents of Appalachia. I know how lucky I am.