I HAD a couple of hours free during a trip to Washington, D.C., last year and decided to see the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Even though the monument is only about ten feet tall at its highest point, it's much more imposing than I had expected. Each of the 140 black granite panels lists hundreds of names of men and women who were killed in the war or who are still listed as missing. Reading this silent roll call, I found myself thinking of these men and women (for the first time, I must admit) not as an undefined mass of soldiers but as specific individuals -- as brothers, husbands, daughters, and best buddies. It's ironic in a way that a list should produce such thoughts. But judging by the accounts of others I've read, what I felt was not unusual. Perhaps the explanation is that I was reading actual names and not just statistics. Perhaps it's because I could read them at eye level, as one would actually see another person, rather than high above on an out-of-reach plaque. No matter. The point is that what had once been, to me, some huge amorphous group became a series of singular portraits; the chorus began to break down into soloists.
We all want to be known for who we are -- appreciated in our uniqueness. Nobody wants to be thought of as just part of a crowd, as an unessential fragment of the huge pie of humanity. And yet so much in modern life seems almost designed to promote these perceptions. It's hard, for instance, to think that a person is indispensable when he or she lives in a city with hundreds of thousands of other people. And when we consider the legions of people around the world whose days are spent fleeing enslavement or war or simply looking for food, it can seem all but incredible to remember that a single life has value.