“A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” This phrase is attributed to Joseph Stalin, one of history’s most cold-blooded rulers, who killed millions of his own people. It captures the lifelessness of a statistic in contrast with the importance of the flesh and blood individual.
“Statistics,” wrote Hilaire Belloc, “are the triumph of the quantitative method, and the quantitative method is the victory of sterility and death.” Numbers have a way of numbing people to what they really signify. A million deaths is not a statistic, but a horror that is beyond human comprehension.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, we observe the statistics around the world grow to mind-boggling levels. As the numbers enlarge on a daily basis, it appears that the only thing that is happening is the increase in numbers. It is easy, then, for us to forget that each one of the many thousands who die are individual human beings who loved and were loved by others. The dignity of their sacred singularity was absorbed into a cloud of abstractions. People, however, are not abstractions.
We live in a culture that is mesmerized by numbers, from daily interest rates to the Gross National Product, from the cost of living to the cost of dying. In the world of baseball, statistics take on iconic significance. Consider Joe DiMaggio’s 56 game hitting streak, Ted Williams’ .406 batting average in 1941, Ty Cobb’s .367 lifetime batting average, and Cy Young’s 511 career victories. These numbers are eternal and immutable. But they are impersonal and lifeless. Hall of Famer and fan favorite Ernie Banks had the right slant on things when he said that “Awards mean a lot, but they don’t say it all. The people in baseball mean more to me than the statistics”. Celebrities talk about their “vital statistics,” which are not in the least vital. G. K. Chesterton once quipped that “statistics should be used as a drunkard uses a lamp post, for support and not for illumination.”
How does one recapture the glory of the singular in the midst of towering abstractions? Christianity centers on the dignity and infinite worth of each individual. Christ died not for humanity, but for each individual person. The Good Book informs us that each one of us is made in the image of God.
Approximately 620,000 American soldiers died in the Civil War. This is, indeed, a grim statistic. However, it may serve as the correct answer on a high school history test. Students may record the number without the slightest hint of feeling. Yet, as a number, it does not tell a story that touches the heart. Stories touch the heart; statistics titillate the mind. The following is a true story that cannot fail to touch the heart.
Sullivan Ballou was a 32-year-old lawyer who volunteered to fight for the Union. Left at home were his wife and their two sons. It was July 14, 1861 when, having a premonition of his imminent death, he wrote a letter to his wife, a letter that has touched innumerable hearts and has achieved fame. The letter is not only an example of fine prose, but an eloquent testimony of love, both for family and country. A small sample of the letter reads as follows: “I have, I know, but small claims upon Divine Providence, but something whispers to me—perhaps it is the wafted prayer of my little Edgar—that I shall return to my loved ones unharmed. If I do not, my dear Sarah, never forget ow much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battlefield, it will whisper your name.”
One week after putting quill to paper, Sullivan Ballou was killed in the Battle of Bull Run.
No doubt his premonition of death was very strong. We feel his love and his courage when he writes: “Sarah, do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for thee, for we shall meet again.” The poignant thought that we will meet again had great emotional appeal for British soldiers during World War II. Love must endure beyond time.
Statistics are inevitable. But they can be deceiving. They smother the individual so that the dignity of one’s singularity becomes hidden. Statistics, then, hide more than they reveal. We should not allow ourselves to be numbed by numbers.
We mourn for the loss of life of all who have fallen victim to the Covid-19 pandemic. Requiescat in pace.