The world as we understand it
A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic. —Probably not Joseph Stalin
We humans are famously bad at finely-tuned and well-calibrated caring. In an early study on scope neglect, experimental subjects were willing to pay $80 to save 2,000 migrating birds from drowning in oil ponds and $78 to save 20,000 (Desvousges et al. 1992). Alas, our sentiments are not a precision instrument.
But suppose that our moods better mapped to the world as we understand it:
Whatever betrayal you feel watching Doubt, the betrayal would feel more than 300 times as sharp. 300 abusers represents just Pennsylvania. The full tally is unknown and probably unknowable.
Whatever loss you feel watching Up, you’d be struck by it again and again for each of the approximately 80,000 miscarriages per day across the world (Obstetricians, Gynecologists, and others 2002).
Whatever despondency you feel watching Winter’s Bone, your feelings would be magnified in depth and breadth by the knowledge that 836 million people in the world live on less than $1.25/day (UN 2015).
Whatever precarity you feel watching Grapes of Wrath, you’d feel it a shattering 2 billion times more intensely for the approximately 25 percent of the world population that live on small farms.
Whatever despair you feel watching The Skeleton Twins, you would feel that way for each of the estimated 334 million people in the world with depression (Organization and others 2017).
Whatever loneliness you feel watching Three Colors: Blue, you might feel that same feeling 2,500 times a day for each of the one quarter of US women who are widowed by age 65 (Berardo 1992).
Whatever shame you feel watching Tokyo Sonata, you’d feel it 192 million times over for the global unemployed in 2018 (International Labour Organization 2018). Then you’d remember that any period of unemployment’s negative effects last at least 10 years [louis2002].
Whatever horror you feel watching The Battle of Algiers, you’d feel it just the same for each and every one of the approximately 80,000 people who will die from battle in state-based conflicts this year (Roser 2018).
Whatever impotence you feel watching Killer of Sheep, you’d remember that there are over 900,000 black people in Los Angeles alone living under flawed structures and institutions.
Whatever grief you feel watching Amour, you’d have around 3.5 minutes to recover before the grief of another US death by stroke crashed over you.
Whatever hopelessness you feel watching Cool Hand Luke, it would echo and rebound magnified from the cells of more than 10 million detainees (Walmsley and others 2015).
Whatever suffocation you feel watching Requiem for a Dream, you’d feel it on behalf of the approximately 164 million people with substance use disorders (Ritchie and Roser 2018).
Whatever ache you feel watching Grave of the Fireflies, it would hollow you out each day along with the approximately 815 million people who are chronically undernourished (Organization 2014).
But, for good or for ill, we are bounded and parochial. We cannot comprehend in any but the most abstracted ways the daily ruin that nature visits on us, that we visit on ourselves and each other.
The world as we imagine it
[T]hose who would play this [utopian] game on the strength of their own private opinion … and would brave the frightful bloodshed and misery that would ensue if the attempt was resisted—must have a serene confidence in their own wisdom on the one hand and a recklessness of other people’s sufferings on the other, which Robespierre and St. Just […] scarcely came up to. (Mill 1879)
The tragedies of life on Earth are no recent revelation. The Epic of Gilgamesh—our earliest surviving great work of literature—is about the hero’s vain attempt to undo the great tragedy of his life.
For some, the knowledge that tragedy has been with us from the beginning inspires not acquiescence but determination that we might leave it behind before we reach the end. These are names that go down in history. Names like: