A possible remedy for the problem of large, round numbers

Dear President Trump,

Right this minute at 7:18am the Worldometer says that 99,883 people in the US have died from covid-19. I’m going to try to not check the website compulsively throughout the day as we close in on 100,000, but I’m not making any promises.

Why do you think it is that big round numbers are so damn compelling? They aren’t any easier to wrap our brains around and they probably make it harder to grasp the import of whatever they are tallying. For example, when we see a number like 99,883 I venture that we’re apt to wonder about those last three people, which in turn signals our hearts and our minds that the others comprising the remaining 99,880 were all people too. On the other hand, 100,000 has so many zeros that I think our hearts and minds can’t get a good grip. It’s like we slide right off and just feel stunned by the bigness of the figure without having much capacity to wonder about that last person who ticked it up from all 9’s to mostly 0’s, or the last 17 who were added to the currently current 99,883 to bring us, however briefly, to a horribly nice round number.

I suppose, then, that this is the appeal of big round numbers – they allow us to intellectually get that whatever they represent is a big deal but they allow us to distance from the particulars. We don’t have to contend with the reality of the individuals comprising big, round numbers. We see those ginormous, overwhelming numbers and keep scrolling. We don’t have capacity to hold all that suffering, all that loss – at least I don’t. Maybe someone does. I almost said that maybe you do, but I realized the absurdity and disingenuousness of that statement and decided to go with “Maybe someone does”.

But what if we were able to stretch ourselves enough that we could sit with an imagined image and an imagined story of one of those 100,000 people and let ourselves feel what it might have been like to die alone, isolated from family and friends. Of course many of us know at least one of those 100,000 people because they were our moms or our uncles or aunties or our best friends. But what if the rest of us who’ve been insulated so far, sat long enough with our person and imagined what they left behind, what kind of business they might have had to leave unfinished because they suddenly couldn’t breathe and had to go to hospital immediately or died trying to get back to their bed at home? What if we were to consciously, conscientiously exercise that empathetic part of ourselves, not to torture or overwhelm ourselves, but to honor our person and to send them off with love and dignity. Well actually, since our person would be past knowing or caring whether someone they didn’t know wished the made-up memory of them well, doing this would really be for ourselves, for our hearts. It would be a way to break through the glaze of big round numbers that we can’t get a grip on and help us to be present with these losses because, really, we turn away from them at our both our individual and our collective peril.

It’s now 8:02pm and the Worldometer says that the US has lost 100,572 individuals to covid-19. How many were taken by surprise when they found they couldn’t take another breath? How many cursed you as they struggled to exist for another few minutes? How many managed to make peace with their end and let themselves slip off? We’ll never, ever know, but please, even if you have to do it in the wee hours of the morning when no one is around, please let yourself imagine the people whose lives were cut short and what their deaths were like, if only for your own sake.

May we be safe from lonely deaths.
May we be willing to learn from this multi-faceted catastrophe and reset conditions so we never, ever do this again.
May we take care of everyone’s health.
May we be kindness and care.

Tracy Simpson

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