Sunday, December 24, 2006

Almost every day on the back page of the newspaper they have ‘The Numbers,’ a collection of statistics, numerically sketches of the world that we live in. This nearly always captures my attention as one of the most informative and relevant of all the ‘news’ that lines the pages of the Herald. Did you know that there are 1500 pigeons in Trafalgar Square in London, or that there are 117 known portraits by Italian renaissance artist Titian? But this little section of the paper does more than prepare the reader for their next game of trivial pursuit.

The stats aren’t always obscure or humorous, for amongst the numbers regarding pigeons and renaissance art, or, for that matter, the nectar bat’s tongue (which I can tell you is 85mm long) emerges other numerical sketches, of loss and injustice, violence and disrepute. ‘The Numbers’ has told me that there are 3273 victims of the 2004 Tsunami who have been identified; there is only 1 African American among the 100 senators of the US congress; 10,000 Palestinians are in Israeli jails; there have been 3 (now 4) coups in Fiji since 1987; 23 people claiming refugee status in New Zealand are in jail; and that as of a few days ago there were 106 suicide bombings in Afghanistan this year. These statistics also remind me of the other things, of poverty, war, hunger, and torture, of infant mortality rates of more than 50% in some parts of the world. The list goes on.

My first response, maybe more defensive than anything, is to ask, what can I do? But I am starting to think that maybe this is the wrong question. Some of the most influential social scientists of the 20th became known for their writing on human suffering and social injustice. These academics suggested that in a way we all play a part, we are all responsible for human suffering; our actions and the decisions we make propagate and perpetuate the sufferings of others: We are caught unawares in this big flow, now knowing that when I buy a t-shirt that says made in China on the tag I am sustaining if not increasing the torrent. I need to ask myself, then, not what can I do, but what am I doing? How am I a part of (and that means in some way responsible for) the jaw-dropping statistics that daily drift across my life?