By Blogger Daryl Geffken
“One death is a tragedy; a million is a statistic.” – Josef Stalin
Statistics numb our sensibilities. They eliminate personality. Author Richard Stearns says, “Statistics can become just another way to look away from the faces of the poor, just one more way to walk by on the other side of the road.” Research confirms this. Studies performed by the University of Oregon and Carnegie Mellon show that the story of one child in a crisis situation compels others to action far more than statistical portraits of disparity and global mortality rates. Why is this?
The human race is filled with passion. Story telling draws people in. It transforms our lives by inspiring and bringing people together in shared experience. We are intrigued by the story of others, quite possibly because we constantly discover ourselves within the tales told around us. When encountering art, we find a face in a mirror. And it is our face. We are confronted with a reality that holds context. In art, a statistic finds its place in a real world. A world of flesh, sweat, blood, challenge, heart. Art can lead us to evaluate who we are.
Disparity in the world is a catastrophic problem
“He will answer them, ‘I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you failed to do one of these things to someone who was being overlooked or ignored, that was me—you failed to do it to me.’” (Matthew 25:45, The Message)
The statistics associated with poverty and hunger are staggering. Often times the numbers are too large to truly comprehend. For example, in the last 50 years, 400 million people worldwide have died from hunger and poor sanitation. This is three times the number of people killed in all wars fought during the 20th century, yet the coverage is minimal at best compared to conflict, according to One International.
In 2010 the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization estimated more than 925 million people in the world suffer from hunger. In 2005, the most current year from which data was available, 1.4 billion people in developing countries were living in extreme poverty . Over 178 million children under the age of five experience irreparable effects due to malnutrition. Every year, nearly 10 million children die before their fifth birthday; most from preventable or treatable causes such as measles, diarrhea or malnutrition. Approximately 358,000 mothers die each year from complications during child birth, and tens of millions more suffer from pregnancy related illnesses and injuries, according to research. Africa’s child mortality rate is 20 times that of the United States and its maternal mortality rate is 65 times that of the United States.
These statistics are bad enough. Further statistics show that there is an even darker side. Researcher David Livermore shared shocking numbers: The wealthiest fifth of the world’s people consume an astonishing 86 percent of all goods and services, while the poorest fifth consume 1 percent. In fact, the world’s three richest individuals exceeded the combined GNP of all of the least developed countries combined (a population of over 600 million). Four-fifths of American adults are high school graduates, while one-fourth of the children worldwide have to go to work everyday instead of school. More than half of the world lives on less than two dollars a day, while the average American teenager spends nearly $150 a week. Forty percent of people in the world lack basic sanitation, while 49 million diapers are used and thrown away in America every day. Lastly, the U.S. spends more on trash bags annually than nearly half the world does on ALL goods (all these stats come from Livermore’s research).
Christian author and pastor Rob Bell has stated America is an empire. It is clear from these statistics that there is a vast chasm fixed between the poor and the wealthy in our global community. Disparity and injustice have reached colossal proportions.
Looking at disparity in my life is very hard. I see things, pictures, statistics, webcasts, concerts that all implore me to stand up and take action. I charge people within my sphere of influence to live differently than they currently do: to give up some of their standard of living in order that we may spread our wealth to others who are fighting for their survival. But I just went to Disneyland for five days. In fact, I own a timeshare on that property and intend to use it until the lease runs out in 2060. I wrestle with the feeling that I am a part of a system that promotes infantilism and consumption. I am unwilling to give up certain things that I cling to. I am not nearly as willing to challenge my manner of living as I am to argue for others to live up to a standard I myself find excruciatingly difficult.
The challenge for me has become more acute lately. Seeing suffering children has become a very agonizing thing for me since I’ve had kids. I respond with great emotion when I encounter the results of disparity in the world. I want to see these children live. I want to see them flourish. I want them to have every opportunity for life, just like my sons. The crass reality I have discovered, though, is that I want my sons to have more. I want my sons to have the best life possible. I do not want them to be lacking in any area. I desire for them to have opportunities for joy and fun and respite that most others do not. I want him to be aware of his privilege and work for others’ care, but I do want him to be privileged.
I don’t think I’m alone. I want security and safety and fun for my children more than I do for others. I want to be tied to those who need my defense and resources. I have come to the point that I realize I must do something. I must serve others. I must sacrifice my own status for the sake of others. Yet, I am a reluctant leader. I struggle to believe that I am worthy of the mantle of leadership due to my weakness.
Sometimes, change must start small. We must identify roadblocks and remove them one by one. Most people cannot just dive in, it would seem. Certainly I have a difficulty with this. I find myself thinking, “I wish I didn’t know what I do,” because then I would not by culpable for my response or lack thereof. I wouldn’t have to deal with my fear of letting go of the life I lead and the love I have for my sons growing up in a privileged manner.
This is the first in a 3-part series.