The realm of abstraction

Like the rest of the world, I’ve seen the images of the devastation in Japan. It’s been headline news, topic of tweets and Facebook links, subject of numerous blogs, calls for action. It’s been analyzed, dissected, prayed about, considered from every geological, political and social angle. Our hearts go out to the people of Japan. But can we truly understand what this means for even a single Japanese citizen?

A news commentator made a good point. When statistics say that X number of houses are without electricity, you must multiply X by three or four: that’s the number of people without adequate warmth. For the number of households without water, multiply by three or four: that’s the number of people who might die of dehydration.

100,000 victims. Multiply that number by the number of people each life touches, and you are in the millions. It’s overwhelming. I can’t conceive the emotions suffered at the loss of 1 special person in a natural disaster, much less 100,000. It’s abstract.

“We’re too weak to feel the full import of such a loss. . . . It would take more than anyone can give to understand the life of one other person. . . . you cannot know anything but the smallest part of the love, regret, excitement, and melancholy of one (life) . . . And Two? And Three? At two you have entered the realm of abstraction. . . .” —Alessandro, quoted in A Soldier of the Great War, by Mark Helprin

There are as many different ways to grieve as there are people. At my grandmother’s funeral, I saw this first hand: the mourners with regrets, those without, those who knew her intimately, briefly or not at all. Yet those categories don’t capture the individual emotions in their complexity, the many faces of grief present in each heart, as individual as the individual herself.

Multiply the loss of 1 person by 1,000s. Imagine it. You can’t.

What we can imagine is filtered through our own unique perspective. Even if you’ve experienced a similar catastrophic event, you and I don’t know what that person or that person or that person is enduring. It’s abstract.

Maybe this is one reason newstories disappear into the archives. We’ll forget Japan, just like most of us have forgotten Haiti, Hurricane Katrina and other disasters, and forget that there are people still living with the loss of everything that had been the foundation of their lives.

A high school classmate died, and I grieved in my own way, no one else experienced that grief exactly as I did, and then I moved on. Days pass when I don’t remember her. I forget that her family still grieves, each in their own way. Grief can isolate us even from the closest friends.

No matter how much I sympathize, I don’t know because I’m not experiencing it. It isn’t me.

Even when I experience the same loss, I still don’t know your emotions because they aren’t my emotions. Not precisely, anyway. At two lives, you’ve entered the realm of abstraction.

This disturbs me. I hate not knowing and not being known. So I dislike knowing that even my powerful imagination can’t enter that abstract realm of another person’s experience. And I dislike it even more when I realize that my weakness leaves others isolated. And worst of all, I don’t know what to do about this.

I want to shatter that line between concrete and abstract. I want to know the pain, joy and regret of another’s life.

But how do I do that?


2 thoughts on “The realm of abstraction

    1. Thanks, Diane. I didn’t know what to write about Japan, although I knew I wanted to write about the disaster, until I realized how abstract the catastrophe is to me. Thanks for reading!


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