Recently I have found myself surrounded by unfathomable numbers. The national debt is $15.5 trillion. Peyton Manning signs a $90 million contract. Investors lose $2.5 trillion in wealth as the stock market declines.
I couldn’t help thinking when I heard this, Is this really supposed to help? The image is as far from my reality as being on the moon itself. The distance to the moon and sun, like light years, have practical applications for scientists but are of little use to me.
When numbers get too large, they cease to have meaning and become inaccessible abstractions. Perhaps this is at the core of many of our problems — and certainly the debate surrounding our national debt.
For years we have operated under the premise that the bigger something is, the better, more efficient and cost effective it is — bigger companies, larger schools, huge cities. Institutions that cast a shadow over their predecessors now loom over us on the brink of collapse.
Here is my own contribution to the world of numbers and truisms. The solution to every problem is one. Taking an example from my own distraction, begin with one — one letter, one word, one sentence, one paragraph, one chapter, one book.
We need to get smaller. Let me start with schools, having spent some time there. Education begins and ends with one student. Many of our high schools, colleges and universities have simply lost the ability to engage the student as an individual.
If we want our students to be engaged, to participate in the life of their schools and extending beyond graduation into participation in the life of their communities, we need smaller schools. Our students have become abstractions, reduced to a performance score on a standardized test.
As schools get larger, common sense tells us fewer students are able to participate in the life of the school community. Whether a school has 400 or 4,000 students, there are still only 12 spots on the varsity basketball team.
If you want to change education, limit the size of a school so that the principal, on graduation day, knows the name of every student crossing the stage. Give the student some humanity, some solid connection to a tangible world and people who care.
Likewise, health care begins with one patient. It is easy to dismiss the millions of uninsured Americans. It is not so easy to dismiss the named and loved uninsured American.
Let a loved one face cancer without insurance and tell me they should be ignored. Our conversations relative to health care should begin with one patient, one story, one named and known person facing the terror of a potentially fatal disease. Problems can be solved at the level of one.
In Africa, 3.5 million people are facing starvation as a result of the worst famine in decades. I simply cannot get my mind around that. I can get my mind — and want to put my arms around and hold — Halima Omar, a Somali mother who has lost four children to starvation. For her I can eat lower on the food chain. For her I can ask my family to sacrifice a little to make a donation to help.
The organization for which I work has restored sight to more than 400,000 individuals. Last year, 15,000 surgeries were performed. These numbers are impressive but remain little more than abstractions.
It is the individual story that exemplifies the impact of our work. It is the story of three blind sisters in India who had only one sari to share between them and therefore did not show up for their scheduled surgeries. The team bought three new saris, and today, all three sisters can see. What can get lost in the numbers is that each surgery is personal, miraculous and changes lives.
Our world of numbers has become incomprehensible. They burden and paralyze us. The solution to every problem is one. Let’s begin with one person, one kind word, one dollar, one step. Therein is our hope.