The Meaning of Life in the Midst of Large Numbers

In For the Time Being (1999), Annie Dillard (b. 1945) writes the following: “There is now, living in New York City, a church-sanctioned hermit, Theresa Mancuso, who wrote recently, ‘The thing we desperately need is to face the way it is'” (19).

And how is it? The serial killer, Ted Bundy, thought he knew. His answer was that a single human’s existence (or nonexistence) obviously means nothing. Here’s Dillard again: “Ted Bundy, the serial killer, after his arrest, could not comprehend the fuss. What was the big deal? David von Drehle quotes an exasperated Bundy in Among the Lowest of the Dead: ‘I mean, there are so many people'” (21).

Dillard also quotes the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin with words to similar effect: “One death is a tragedy: a million deaths are a statistic.”

Dillard then asks the following: “How can an individual count? Do individuals count only to us other suckers, who love and grieve like elephants, bless their hearts? […] One small town’s soup kitchen, St. Mary’s, serves about 115 men a night. Why feed 115 individuals?”

Why, indeed, in light of the human numbers? Here’s Dillard offering one of them for our contemplation: “On April 30, 1991—on that one day—138,000 people drowned in Bangladesh. At dinner I mentioned to our daughter, who was then seven years old, that it was hard to imagine 138,000 people drowning. ‘No, it’s easy,’ she said. ‘Lots and lots of dots, in blue water.'”

As to human population, living and dead, Dillard quotes Harvard demographer Nathan Keyfitz as writing to journalist Justin Kaplan the following: “Credible estimates of the number of people who have ever lived on earth run from 70 billion to over 100 billion,” and Dillard observes that, based on these figures, “the dead outnumber us (by now we have swelled to 5.9 billion) by about 14 to 1. […] The dead will always outnumber the living.” She also observes the startling fact that, given the high infant and child mortality of earlier periods of history, “Half of all the dead are babies and children.”

Dillard’s ironic tone throughout her book is in keeping with these numbers, which have grown since she published it in 1999 (many millions more have died and world population exceeds 7 billion in 2013). The numbers would appear to cast a shadow of emptiness and futility over our lives—perhaps even giving us thoughts of suicide.

But might such lemon-thoughts be turned into lemonade? The American novelist Walker Percy offers a surprising response to our redundancy and dispensability: why not live? Here’s Percy in his playful nonfiction book, Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book (1983, 77-78):

If you are serious about the choice [of suicide], certain consequences follow. Consider the alternatives. Suppose you elect suicide? Very well. You exit. Then what? What happens after you exit? Nothing much. Very little, indeed. After a ripple or two, the water closes over your head as if you had never existed. You are not indispensable after all. You are not even a black hole in the Cosmos. All that stress and anxiety was for nothing. Your fellow townsmen will have something to talk about for a few days. Your neighbors will profess shock and enjoy it. One or two might miss you, perhaps your family, who will also resent the disgrace. Your creditors will resent the inconvenience. Your lawyers will be pleased. Your psychiatrist will be displeased. The priest or minister or rabbi will say a few words over you and you will go on the green tapes and that’s the end of you. In a surprisingly short time, everyone is back in the rut of his own self as if you had never existed.

Now, in the light of this alternative, consider the other alternative. You can elect suicide, but you decide not to. What happens? All at once, you are dispensed. Why not live, instead of dying? You are free to do so. You are like a prisoner released from the cell of his life. You notice that the door to the cell is ajar and that the sun is shining outside. Why not take a walk down the street? Where you might have been dead, you are alive. The sun is shining.

Walker Percy died in 1990. Annie Dillard, at the time of this writing, is still alive. And did you know that there are 100 billion galaxies in the observable universe, each containing perhaps 100 billion stars? One of those stars is overhead right now.


  • Dillard, Annie. For the Time Being (Knopf 1999).
  • Percy, Walker. Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux 1983).

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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2 Responses to The Meaning of Life in the Midst of Large Numbers

  1. Terrie Lee says:

    Dear Santi, I was just reading “The Meaning of Life In the Midst of Large of Numbers” and you are a brilliant writer. A very thoughtful and thought provoking piece. Yours respectfully, Terrie Lee

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