Thursday, December 07, 2006

How do you measure the size of a tragedy?

I guess you could use the number of people who were injured or lost their homes, but the most significant number is probably the number of people who died.

Hurricane Katrina, for example, was a horrible tragedy. Nearly 2,000 people lost their lives. Ugh.

The Darfur conflict in Sudan has cost about 400,000 lives so far, and it's ongoing. It's hard to imagine death on that scale.

The Rwandan genocide in 1994? Probably about a million lives lost. Unreal.

Roughly 10,000,000 people were killed by the Nazis in the Holocaust, give or take a million.

The very size of those tragedies make them hard to fathom. I can't really conceive of millions of deaths. My mind reels and I'm unable to process the impact emotionally. It's just too big to bear.

Last week I read about the Kim family. They had been on a road trip through the Northwest for Thanksgiving and went missing on November 25th. The story popped up in the news on a regular basis with theories about where they might have gone and updates on the progress of the search. I paid a little attention, but mostly managed to block it out. It's not pleasant reading about an imperiled family, especially one with two small children.

Then, on Monday of this week, a full nine days after they had gone missing, news came that some of the family members, the mom and the two daughters, had been found in their car on a remote Oregon road. The dad, James Kim, had struck out into the wilderness two days earlier, to try and get help for his family. He was still missing.

Search teams regrouped and chased James's trail through the snow.

I couldn't stop reading about it.

I didn't really understand why this story grabbed me so strongly. I'm not hitting the Refresh button for Darfur updates, and the scale of that tragedy is bigger by orders of magnitude. But, reduce it down to one man, lost in the wilderness, and suddenly it hits me like a ton of bricks. I pressed that Refresh button dozens of times each day.

On Tuesday a member of one of my email groups sent out a message saying that he was going to go join the search in Oregon, and asking if anyone wanted to join him. I stared at that email for a good long time. In the end I decided that I would be a greater liability to a wilderness search team than an asset, but it ate away at me.

News came on Wednesday that James had been found and he had not survived his trek. It wounded me. Obviously the sorrow felt by the people who know him and his family dwarfs the impact it made on me, but I was surprised at how depressed it made me.

At the most superficial level, I had a fair amount in common with James Kim. I live in San Francisco, have a family, and make my living in a technical field, just like James. The similarities break down at that point. From what I've read he was kinder, smarter, and more driven than I'll ever be. Furthermore, the way he died, desperately trekking through a snowy wilderness to save his stranded family is undoubtedly more tragic and heroic than my demise will be (I predict that I'll die while running, either having a heart attack or running into something more lethal than a garbage can).

Maybe it's just a coping mechanism that giant tragedies have a hard time sinking in emotionally, and only the small ones wriggle into my heart. Or maybe I could picture myself driving my family through a snowy road and getting stranged. Either way, this one got to me.

I'm going to stop hitting the Refresh button soon though.

CNET's video retrospective

4 comments:

sierrarain said...

I went to the park today with my son and every time I saw a father with their child I thought of James Kim and his daughters. I don't know why this tragedy has hit me so hard, either. I don't know the Kims at all other than what I read in the news accounts, but my impression of James Kim is the same as yours. It's so sad.

Anonymous said...

They were smart too, they stayed with the car for a long time. After several days they were evidently faced with a brutal judgment call: James heads out, thereby greatly reducing his own chance of survival in exchange for a slight increase in survival chances for the whole family. A tragic bargain to have to make, and a heroic choice by both parents.

--Pablo

Velvet Sacks said...

This story gripped me, too, Mike, and the similarities between him and you (someone I kind of know) crossed my mind. It's one thing to think about somebody dying suddenly, violently (still tragic) and another to think about loving, intelligent parents who find themselves in James and Kati's situation. I kept imagining the worried conversations they must have had while James was still with the family, the attempts to comfort and distract the children. And then I wondered about the thoughts that must have gone through James's mind while he trekked alone through that unfriendly terrain.

This loss seems so personal. Maybe it's because the Kims seem like such a nice family, or maybe it's the realization that we all make mistakes and that it only takes one wrong turn to change an entire family's future.

Mike said...

Hi Sierrarain, some stories just grab us. I have friends who got obsessed with Lacy Peterson. I guess this one is mine.

Pablo, I totally agree. I know you're supposed to stay with the car, but they did that strategy for a week. I don't know if I could have been even that patient. As one of my friends recently said, "I can't imagine spending a few HOURS in a car with my kid."

VS, yeah. Ugh.