Sunday, April 26, 2015

One is the Most Compassionate Number

There was a huge earthquake in Nepal. More than 2,100 people are dead. Two days ago they were alive. Today they are dead. Want to know what I did when I heard the news? Well, first I finished my coffee. Later I went running and got some lunch. I had a strong craving for ice cream that afternoon, so I went to the grocery store and bought some. I ate the ice cream while watching Doctor Who. I edited about seven pages of a paper. I changed back into my pajamas in the early afternoon. I finished up Monday's homework.

Want to know what I didn't do? I did not cry over the loss of more than 2,000 friends, parents, children, and siblings. I didn't think about all the people who are now homeless. I didn't make a donation to any relief efforts. I didn't spend time poring over news stories and researching ways that I could help.

Did your Saturday look similar to mine? It probably did. But why is that? Why can't we bring ourselves to care about 2,100 people? I like to think that I'm a fairly compassionate person. You're probably compassionate, too. You have at least one cause that you care for deeply, right? When a friend needs you, you're there immediately. Yet we don't react on behalf of 2,100 people.

The reason is because of that number: 2,100. It's called statistical numbing, and it's been engrained in the human brain for a very long time. We mentally brush aside large numbers. If you hear a story about a little girl whose life is in danger, you'll donate $11 to help her. If you hear about eight children whose lives are in danger, you'll donate $5. Mathematically, that makes absolutely no sense. Even I know that, and I'm bad at math. Logically, we should want to multiply that $11 by 8 when we hear about those kids. But maybe numbers just seem less human to us than stories.

So here's what we should do. Ignore the number. Pretend the number doesn't exist. Focus on the story. A seven year old child stands in the middle of a pile of rubble. It's dangerous for her to be there. She's surrounded by nails, splintered wood, broken glass. She's going to get hurt. You know she is. But there's no mother to take her away from this. Her mother is somewhere under that pile. And that child is sobbing. Where's Mommy? Who's going to take care of this baby now? Who's going to hold this little girl? Get that image in your head. Hold on to it. It's painful, but hold on to it. And only when it's fully taken root inside of you, multiply that child's mommy by 2,100.

Now do you want to do something? Me too. Most of us won't be able to do much to help, but we can support the relief efforts monetarily. is supporting Nepal right now. So are many others, but make sure you check out to make sure you're donating to a legitimate nonprofit. And if you can only spare $5, then there's $5 more for rebuilding. Have nothing? Tweet a link to a nonprofit.

I believe that prayers are powerful, and if you do too, pray for those friends and siblings and parents.

Our brains want to get in the way of our compassion. We won't let our brains win.