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Gilbert: Challenge Of Statistics

04/04/11 5:55PM By Peter Gilbert
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(HOST)  More than three weeks after the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, the nuclear crisis continues.  The death toll is already in the thousands - and still rising. Peter Gilbert, commentator and executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council, considers how we respond to such staggering news. 
 
(GILBERT) When I heard about the disaster, my thoughts went first to family members and friends in the affected area - were they OK?  My brother was in Tokyo on business when the earthquake hit.  His daughter - my niece - is a Peace Corps volunteer in the tiny, Pacific island nation of Tonga, where the people's ability to flee inland to safety or to higher ground is virtually nil.  My wife has cousins in Japan and lots of family in Hawaii, where there was great concern that a tsunami would also hit.  Bottom line: everyone was OK.  That is, everyone I knew personally in the affected areas was OK. 

But, of course, thousands lost their lives.  They were people I didn't know. But someone knew them. They were someone's brother, niece, cousin, parent, child.
         
Thousands dead, we are told, but it's hard to wrap one's head around those numbers and what they mean.  It's been said that it's the mark of a truly intelligent person to be moved by statistics.  That's the challenge we have before us.
           
We have another challenge, too - and that's to view all human beings as equally important.

I'm reminded of something Jimmy Carter said years ago when he was asked a question about racism. His answer was profound, and, I expect, more provocative than the questioner anticipated.  "There is some element of racism that is inherent in all of us," he said.  "I try not to be a racist and wouldn't call myself a racist, but I have feelings that border on it. And that is embarrassing to me sometimes. When the t.v. screens were filled with little Ethiopian and Sudanese children walking along with distended bellies and dying in the arms of their dying mothers. It's hard for me to believe that one of these children in the eyes of God is as important as Amy, my daughter.
         
"How many of these little black kids," he continues, "does it take to equal one Amy? Fifteen . . .twenty . . .ten. . . five . . .?  I think the answer is one. But it's hard for me to believe this. I think all of us to some degree are guilty," he concludes, "of an insensitivity to the needs and ideas of others . . ."
         
I have two young daughters, and I understand only too well how he might feel that Amy's life is somehow more precious than others'.

Our insensitivity to others' needs needn't stem from racism.  It may be just the natural tendency to be concerned first for those whom we know.  The earthquake and tsunami challenge us, as we've been challenged before, to be sensitive to others, their losses and tragedies; to the well-being of people whom we don't know.  To every individual name and face and life contained in those statistics that are so hard to comprehend.  Those are some of the challenges we face continuously as we strive to lead good and thoughtful lives.
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