500,000 dead.

The number itself is beyond my capacity for imagining. I assume others have the same problem. Reporters and folks in the public eye sometimes do a good job of contextualizing it- how many deaths per day, per second; what cities have comparable living populations; how COVID mortality compares to cancer, heart disease, car accidents; or, as the President did, how the number compares to war dead: more than American deaths in WWI, WWII, and Vietnam combined – in less than one year. He listed American war dead because that 1/2 million, remember, is just American deaths. The worldwide total is now nearly 5x that.

Compassion is a special interest of mine and how we avoid or draw out compassion/empathy is fascinating to me. I found Biden’s speech quite moving when he talked about the pain of loss, something we know he knows intimately.

For the loved ones left behind, I know all too well — I know what it’s like to not be there when it happens. I know what it’s like when you are there, holding their hands. There’s a look in your eye, and they slip away. That black hole in your chest, you feel like you’re being sucked into it. The survivor’s remorse. The anger. The questions of faith in your soul. 

For some of you, it’s been a year, a month, a week, a day, even an hour. And I know that when you stare at that empty chair around the kitchen table, it brings it all back, no matter how long ago it happened, as if it just happened that moment you looked at that empty chair. The birthdays, the anniversaries, the holidays without them. And the everyday things — the small things, the tiny things — that you miss the most. That scent when you open the closet. That park you go by that you used to stroll in. That movie theater where you met. The morning coffee you shared together. The bend in his smile.  The perfect pitch to her laugh.

Beautiful. Truly. What it did was artfully done, in the best sense of the word. Even those of us who haven’t had a loved one die could connect with the specificity of the images of love lost, and effortlessly intuit the pain of eternal loss, if just for a moment. Nonetheless, it connected us with the pain of the people left behind, not with the people themselves lost to COVID. “There is nothing ordinary about them” didn’t sit right with me. It may be more true that we all are ordinary, and perhaps thereby even more worthy of love and compassion. Poor, messy, fascinating, trudging little humans. I came out of that tribute with great feeling for those left behind, but only a generalized sorrow for the dead, nothing specific or tangible.

Of course, that wasn’t the goal of that address and of course, the answer to the question of how to humanize the dead is easy – listen to the people who loved them as the specific, ordinary humans they were. There’s no shortage of that if you’re willing to look for it. And there is something special about the series that NPR’s morning edition is doing. Songs of Remembrance gives one person a chance to choose a song that reminds them of their beloved and then talk about whatever they want – sometimes the song was what she always sang at karaoke, or what they danced to at their wedding, or what he taught to his choir students, or just a song that recalls that human for that particular individual.

I think the song idea is so brilliant and effective because it’s again connecting the specific to the universal, as Biden did for loss. You get funny or admirable or romantic details about the person themselves and what they meant to the speaker, but you also get to hear a song through their story. If it’s a song you know, you can see it from a different perspective or connect to the shared familiarity. Some of the songs I don’t know, but I know they are known and shared across countries and cultures and political beliefs. The contributors and their friends and family members all took the universal – a song, heard millions of times – and crafted it into something unique. We can accept the offer of that inimitable experience and make it universal again.

That is what compassion is, after all, right? That’s why Metta meditation starts with wishing yourself well, happy, safe, enlightened – starting with someone you know well, even when you pretend you don’t – and expanding out a bit more – a good friend, an antagonist; followed by someone you don’t know well, but interact with. From them you expand your good wishes out to your neighborhood, city, country, world, picking up animals and plants and such along the way. And the next time you sit, you start the same way. We don’t pretend that we can easily access a genuine concern for the great abstraction of “everyone’s” wellbeing. It takes time and work. Eventually my hope is that it will be easy, because the distinction between the specific and the general will fade away; the arbitrary, imaginary line between myself and the rest of life will blur and love for anything will be love for everything.

Until then, I am grateful to read and listen to these tributes and cry for the beauty and loss of the achingly human connection to another human, and recognize in their words and music that the love doesn’t die when the body does, and hope that they hear it too.

3 thoughts on “How to Reify Half a Million People

  1. I love this post so much. I loved how you focused on the Biden speech and compassion (kindness and compassion are the greatest things in the world) and the swelling and ebbs and flow of the pain of loss of loved ones, and then beautifully segued into the musical journey to compassion for those who were lost. There’s something about a favorite song and *why* it’s a favorite song that gives you a powerful part of someone to see.

    Liked by 1 person

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