Why is one death a tragedy and thousand a statistic?

5 Oct


“North Koreans learned to swallow their pride and hold their noses. They picked kernels of undigested corn out of the excrement of farm animals. Shipyard workers developed a technique by which they scraped the bottoms of the cargo holds where food had been stored, then spread the foul-smelling gunk on rooftops to dry so that they could collect from it tiny grains of uncooked rice and other edibles.

On the beaches, people dug out shellfish from the sand and filled buckets with seaweed.When the authorities in 1995 erected fences along the beach (ostensibly to keep out spies, but more likely to prevent people from catching fish the state companies wanted to control), people went out to the unguarded cliffs over the sea and with long rakes tied together hoisted up seaweed. ”

Do I dare to say it? Yes, the book above helped me to restore my faith in humanity when I felt like I might bend double and snap from the weight of all the ‘catastrophe-crisis-death’ headlines we see in the papers everyday. Why, you might ask?

Why would a country where spying is encouraged, where your leader is your religion, where propaganda is the only accepted art form, do that? Why would a country that is synonym for famine, help me to believe in something good?

Yes, I was shocked by the book. I stopped reading it for five months because I had to digest what I was reading. Because frankly, the realisation  and factual evidence that complete oppression is not some Orwellian imagined dystopia but a living thing affecting millions was a shock to me.

But then I realised that the shock was exactly what I needed. I needed to feel the weight of all the headlines and had to be reminded of the suffering. Because there is something more dangerous than violence and cruelty and oppression. It’s violence and cruelty and oppression becoming normal. Because when all we feel is numbness facing something horrible, we lose the will to do anything about it. Abnormal becoming normal is paralysing.

“She often felt sick over what she did and didn’t do to help her young students. How could she have eaten so well herself when they were starving? It is axiomatic that one death is a tragedy, a thousand a statistic. So it was for Mi-ran. What she didn’t realise is that her indifference was an acquired survival skill. In order to get through the 1990s alive, one had to suppress any impulse to share food. To avoid going insane, one had to learn to stop caring. In time, Mi-ran would learn to walk around a dead body on the street withouth paying much attention.”

I hope the day comes when that is a survival skill no-one has to learn.

And yet, every time people question my belief in altruistic actions and unconditional, unselfish love as naiive and dead, I recommend them this book. Why? Because it assured me that love does exist even in the darkest places. Oppression can kill many things, but it cannot kill love.

Quoted extracts from Barbara Demick’s Nothing To Envy, Real lives in North Korea.

Photo: Wikipedia

9 Responses to “Why is one death a tragedy and thousand a statistic?”

  1. David Emeron at 6:26 am #

    Oh but it can, dear lady, it can indeed. It has kept countless millions from ever having a chance to know love. Merely, have they known short, pointless lives of suffering and death.. North Korea is founded upon the doctrine of altruism, it is also a “perfect” democracy. See what such things yield?

    That book is a testament not to the doctrine of altruism, but to the proof that the human spirit cannot be completely destroyed by that doctrine. In the places we are lucky enough to live, you and I, and others reading this blog, we love who we choose. And no force is applied to us to love everyone equally. No reading of any book can possibly cause any of us to understand what that is truly like–the moment when we “get our wish.’ and everyone loves everyone else equally.

    But that utopia exists already. It is North Korea–and other places like it that have gone before and will probably come after, as well. Take a nice long look. Drink it up. Then kiss the ground whereupon you are lucky enough to have been born, and whereupon you are free to love whomever you choose–or not.

    • daydreamdaisies at 10:27 am #

      I really appreciate your comment. You make interesting points which I agree with and which made me rethink. Perhaps I didn’t make myself quite clear with my last comment on love in this post. I wasn’t referring to the totalitarian social structure of North Korea and wished to make no associations between altruism and the country, because North Korea is one of the most horrid examples on how apparent will for equality can lead to total oppression, and how oppression can indeed alienate human beings from love.
      However, the comment was made in the honour of all the defectors interviewed in this book whom I totally admire. To me, one of the most important messages of this book was that there were also people who did not just survive, lingering on, but also _lived_. They managed to escape and find a new life. I was also referring, more particularly, to the love story of Mi-ran and Jung-Sang told in the book, because they found in each other a friend and a confidant. It is sad that they had to hide their love and live in fear because of it, but then there is also the miracle of trust. The fact that their love did exist and neither of them doubted. Now, isnt’ that a miracle worth celebrating? Especially in the place like North Korea where even a carelessly uttered syllable can end you in a prison camp.

      There are so many aspects which I find totally wrong about North Korea but here I simply tried to emphasise human resilience. To remind that there is hope, no matter how little. To remind people of the defectors, the survivors and the lost equally. My intention was not juxtapose the country with altruism or love. I just wanted to remind people, like you said, to feel grateful for the life they have been given. I wanted to share some of the feelings this book gave to me in the hope that someone else finds this book. Because I think that when discussing North Korea, we should not only be reminded of the nuclear threat it poses to whatever country, but actually told about the people who have to endure in this country. The faith of those people.

      • David Emeron at 11:20 am #

        It is quite amazing to see the resilience of such people. They cry in a way that none of us can understand once they finally have escaped a place like that. As I mentioned, being as old as the hills themselves, That I have friends among such people who have made good their escape from these nightmare regimes. .And quoting myself: “Such people marvel at how we throw about so easily terms like “war crimes” and “atrocities” and “treason” regarding our own leaders, when they know all too well what those words really mean, and what those things really are. First hand. We seem quite spoiled to most of them. And rightly so.”

        But most of them admire us in a way in which we find it hard to admire itself. One acquaintance of mine told me it was her goal that her children should be unable to conceive of the things she encountered in the horrible place from which she escaped.

        There are many such places–more than you might think.

        The fact that their love did exist and neither of them doubted. Now, isn’t that a miracle worth celebrating? Especially in the place like North Korea where even a carelessly uttered syllable can end you in a prison camp.

        Absolutely! I’m am very fortunate to have found a love like that. So in that I can understand completely. When I was a little boy in the heartland of America, a little English girl began following me around in her quiet reserved manner, And I began to follow her in the same way. The world could not keep us apart, and believe me, it tried! And now, the better part of a century later, we are both still following each other. So I am particularly qualified to understand a bond like that. Many of my sonnets are written upon that subject.

        This is all much more serious than I usually get in comments. I usually just say: Cheerio! and Keep writing! and other such encouraging words. My site is mostly about sonnets. There is some intensity in what I write, to be sure, but, in that little corner of the web, I’m privileged to be able to look all my subjects with an eye to the romantic.

        Ah, to have lived to see all this come about! ‘Tis true there are no flying cars and the year 2000 has come and gone almost 13 years ago. Still, the Internet and tablets and smartphones are very “flying-car-like,” when all is said and done. (and there has been a flying car or two in the works since around the mid 1990ies, alas, still not perfected)

      • daydreamdaisies at 11:40 am #

        I also have a tendency to colour in my observations with romanticism and I have often been called naiive and an idealist for that. But I think a little bit of innosence has never harmed anyone. That is one of the reasons your blog intrigued me because I found reading your sonnets very relieving, the feel and emotion to them was what pulled me in. I think it is much more worthwhile and healing to read words of love and kindness and positivity, whether romanticised or not, than to read words of hate, spite and bitterness. That is also a tenet I’m trying to fulfill in my blog, to just create a little bit more kidness and strenght to this world. Without idealists, there wouldn’t be progression.

        Albeit, reality checks are sometimes needed because like we have just discussed above, what is seen as progression can go horribly, hurtingly wrong. I found the observation of your acquintance as incredibly wise. It is important to actually realise the power of our own mind, the fears and suffering we can conceive in our heads correlates much to the suffering we have experienced in our own lives. So no matter how much we read about horrible things in the news, many of us are so so lucky to still live in a state of oblivion about many of these things. We have not experienced them and it is very hard to actually feel the pain of those people.
        Luckily, we have developed a sense of empathy and that’s why it is so important to listen to the people we get to meet, their experiences, and to read about things that truly shed light to the feelings, rather than the statistics, about what is going on in the world. Because feelings are usually what makes us act and I think this is what can help making the world a better place. First we need to understand.

  2. David Emeron at 11:50 am #

    Thank you for your kind words though regarding venom and hatred, if you poke around long enough, on my site you’ll find some of that there as well, albeit in sonnet form, and, naturally, romanticized. 🙂

    • daydreamdaisies at 6:56 pm #

      Well, I think every emotion is worth exploring. The worst thing is to bottle something up! I’ll sure be visiting your blog : ) And you’re very welcome, thanks for a great discussion!


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