I have the face of a young, blonde girl burned into my mind. She’s about yay high, with a smile that reaches her eyes. About two years back, her face was on my timeline, and I started reading about her. I don't know why she stood out to me. Maybe it was how positive the thread was. Such a nice girl, they said, and I believed them. Sounded like the kind of girl I'd love to be friends with.
So, I click on her profile and I'm about to activate stalker-mode, for really no reason at all. How can I find out more about this girl?
I can't, her profile tells me, because she's dead.
This smiling young person, this girl my own age, was a victim of a school shooting. And beneath that post was an entire thread of others, dedicated to telling the stories of other dead students.
I'd heard the statistics about school shootings before. But as an Australian, I never stopped to learn more. There was an ocean between me and those numbers. Numbers; not kids.
But this time was different. I stopped to read all the posts. And the feeling I got in that moment stuck with me. Though I didn't know it at the time, it was the same feeling I’d get when my Uncle would die of a heart attack in the weeks to come. It was the same feeling I’d get discovering the stiffened, fluffy body of my dead bunny rabbit. It was the same feeling I’d get when a classmate would sit down beside me at the station one morning, stare at his Nike sneakers and say, "my sister died last night."
It was the feeling that we humans are MEANT to experience when faced with death. The grief might be little or large, it might be gone in two minutes or five years, but it’s an acknowledgement we’ve lost one of our own. It’s the sadness of losing a member of the tribe. And yet, for me, it felt so new that it hurt.
Why? Death, suffering, they're all around us. I could tell you nearly half of the world's population lives on less than $5.50 a day. I could tell you that 1 in 5 Australian women have experienced sexual violence.
Did you hear what I said, or did your brain shut down when I used the first number?
It’s just a statistic, right, it’s just 1 in 5. Until it's your own mother, or sister, or friend. It shouldn’t have to be your own mother before you stand up and take action, read the article, have the conversation, learn the story.
But as humans, that's how we function- we ignore the problem until it hits close to home. Google tells me over 200,000 people have died from COVID-19 in the US, but as an Australian, I didn’t know that. As an Australian, it didn’t matter.
Death toll numbers seem scary to us these days, but why only now? Why only when the lives of your own family members are at risk? Statistics insulate us from human suffering until the suffering arrives on our doorsteps.
It’s why we walk the other way when we see charities at the shops.
“10,000 Sudanese girls denied education”? You hear that sort of stuff every day.
We walk past, coins rattling in our purses, playing the “let’s-not-make-eye-contact” game.
Oh, we could spare a few coins. But where will they go? To feed a number. Not a person.
It seems obvious that the two share a life, but it’s harder to make that connection than we think. As teenagers, we are the most desensitised generation yet. We skim over devastating news stories with a shrug. We identify our own friendships by the number of Snapchat streaks we have. We are more concerned about likes and followers than the human beings who press those buttons.
But there just might be something we can do.
There’s a reason the face of that girl is burned into my mind. The teenagers at that school, they could have posted numbers that would be mindlessly scrolled by. But instead, they posted faces and stories, and they reached millions. They reached me.
Stories reach so much farther than numbers, because as humans, we inherently gravitate towards narratives. It's why World Vision asks you to sponsor a child, rather than donating to the feeding of 10,000.
Our ancestors would sit under the night sky and tell stories around the campfire. Whether that sky brought them the southern cross, or the constellation of Aquarians in the north, the stories would connect them all the same.
We’re losing our connection with stories. But as teenagers, as the future generation, we have to keep sharing them. Donate at your local shopping centre and research the stories behind those numbers. Be an advocate for change rather than liking a post about an issue and forgetting about it the next day. Don’t count your Snapchat streaks, count the real hours you spend with the friends you’re lucky enough to have.
We have to be the ones to see through the numbers.
Because everyone one of those school shooting victims has a story. Every woman who has ever experienced sexual violence has a story. Every starving child, every person battling with COVID-19.