Remembering the dead

Sometimes you need a tangible reminder to pull yourself out of self-absorbtion. Yesterday after needlessly fretting over my first day back to teaching, which of course went fine, I got such a tangible reminder in the form of eight pairs of combat boots, each commemorating the life of a New Hampshire serviceman killed in Iraq.

When I’d heard that the NH chapter of the American Friends Service Committee was staging a miniature version of the organization’s acclaimed Eyes Wide Open exhibit in Central Square here in Keene, I was initially surprised that there would be only eight pairs of boots. With the seemingly endless reports of U.S. casualties I hear in the news–and with the seemingly endless stream of New Hampshire troops going to and from Iraq–I’d expected there would have been more than eight New Hampshire natives who have died in the war. “Only eight?” asked the war-jaded voice in my head.

Too many dead

I immediately corrected myself. There is no “only” when it comes to human suffering. Each of these “only eight” left grieving friends and family; each was terribly too young to die, ranging in age from 20 to 45. If it’s your loved one who fails to come home from war–if it’s your children who ask every day after Daddy, your son who died before you–it doesn’t matter if seven or seventeen thousand other families share your grief. Grief cannot be calculated much less compared. Every grieving person–every grieving family–grieves alone, their individual loss neither shared nor minimized by other wounded souls.

These days, the news is filled with reports of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation, testimony that seems to alternate between saying the storm wasn’t as bad as it could have been and the destruction is worse than expected. Without a working TV, I’ve been spared the most graphic visual proof of the aftermath, so I rely heavily upon such reports to understand the breadth of destruction: how bad was it, is it, really? Although it’s an understandable human impulse to want to understand disaster, to put suffering into some sort of quantitative category called “how much,” that impulse is patently absurd. Any suffering is untenable: too much. The heart staggers at the thought of lives lost in war and homes and hearts broken by natural disaster. Eight soldiers dead, two states swamped, and countless souls dead, injured, or homeless is enough: too much.