Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Faces, not Statistics

Bangladesh has about 160 million people - more than half the U.S. population - crammed into a landmass roughly the size of Iowa. Panama has about 3.2 million, less than the Atlanta metro area. Chile, that skinny border of a country that snakes down South America's western spine, has nearly 16 million people, arguably a million or two less than Shanghai, China.

China, of course, is the most populous country in the world, with anywhere between 1.2 and 1.5 billion depending on which way the wind's blowing on the day you ask.

I could go on, but I think I've made the point that I know way too many country populations off the top of my head. This isn't a weird hobby. It's a natural effect of working as an international business reporter, where I write daily about well-known countries like South Korea (almost 50 million people) or more obscure ones like Mongolia (about 2 million. Okay I'll stop. Really.)

There's a tendency, for me at least, with all this focus on macroeconomics, to forget the people that make up the masses we call populations and that depend on this money we call economy to survive. When I stare at the computer screen too long, writing about faraway places without visiting them, people become statistics, big crowds, not living souls who have hopes, fears and dreams.

It's impossible for any human being to try to remember every face he sees, and no one would expect us too, especially after we've visited a place like China, where you can see hundreds of thousands in one day. So we compartmentalize. We formulate a ranking system, kind of like a criminal lineup or a forensic database, to rate the faces in order of importance. Family faces are usually at the top, friends usually toward the middle, and acquaintances on the lower rungs, filed under "People I kind of care about."

Luckily, the database in each of our brains is different. Like a social networking Web site, our face files often overlaps with those of the other members of our social circle. But sadly, that's where we think it ends, like the shore of a lake stops the water's sprawl toward land. We act as if our personal borders are the high-fenced places where caring should end. For those beyond our walls, we're just too busy.

I like to believe something different, though. We don't see it often (maybe the fences are too high) but our social circles, those compilations of faces that we notice, are like ripples in huge ocean, linked together and ever expanding across the surface of humanity. It's kind of like the six degrees of separation thing. Everyone is interconnected.

This hit home while I was driving the other day with the window down. I heard a bird here and there, but mostly it was the squeal of the bus's breaks or the roar of a car's engine that caught my ear. Although traffic noises aren't generally the most soothing sounds, it was nice to hear signs of life outside my car. No radio advertisements. No music. No Chinese audio CD. Just people going about their daily lives, navigating this web we're tangled in together.

At that moment I thought about my travels to China, all the faces that I've seen in five trips there. It must be in the millions. I don't remember every one, but there are some indelible faces that I can't shake from my brain, images that have crept up into the "People I'll remember" file. One is a skinny 6-year-old girl with a shaved head who was obsessed with ears and could say one English word: apple. Another is a girl who looked like she might be 3 years old, left unattended on a concrete staircase in a remote village. Still another is an old man with ratty clothes, smiling as we walk away from the hovel where he shared his family's harvest of watermelons with us.

When those faces flashed through my brain, I sort of felt sad, like I was letting them down by not remembering them more often. These are people, not numbers; faces, not statistics. They are in someone's circle, and they're as dear to their families as my wife and mother are to me.

Not only should I care about them in this general sense, but if I believe that this life is only a segue into eternity, shouldn't I pull out all the stops in putting them on the narrow path that leads to life?

There are more than 6 billion people in this world, 6 billion faces, all shapes and colors. God loves every one.

Photo: Yunnan Province, China. Copyright Brad Kinney 2006.

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