Twenty-five thousand dead in Colombian mud flows sounds like the end of the world in a horror movie but the news of it hits like a blow.

The truth is the world is always coming to an end, it's just that the world does not know it. The mind draws back from immensity, the endless massacres and acts of God through the ages, and I have tried to think why a mass death numbs us and a single one does not.

Some people think that if the quantity is increased enough, then the quality itself will change, as some say the Hiroshima bomb was new and different from the mere sum of 100,000 deaths.

I have never quite seen it that way. No doubt the horror is easier to see when it comes to so many at once, but was horror ever so hard to see?

I've heard it said that mass death is what turned cavemen to discover or invent their gods. Though others say this is why so many say the gods do not exist and never did.

The old question, what is man, attracts new interest today. The size of the jaw, the ridge of the brow, the volume of the brainpan, the bones suggesting bipedality, all are examined by seers to see when beast became man.

But at the other end of time there is still some doubt how long a man will live. We are not fully sure even when he is dead.

There is also curiosity, renewed after every disaster, how the gods were discovered or dreamed up in ancient times. Some say they were invented to ensure good harvests or luck in hunting, but I think they were discovered to ease human pain. It would not surprise me if they were born the day a woman, having lost a kid, first comprehended the magnitude of it as no animal ever did, and knew a grief more terrible than theirs.

There is no way to know, for all the fossils of this world, just when a vivid consciousness of suffering first occurred, but the day it did is the day we first were us.

It is thought some people hurt more than others, though we do not know that, either. Everybody hurts sometimes, we can guess, and it makes a difference, we usually think, whether life amounts to more than an odd arrangement of molecules somewhat different from rocks -- and whether human suffering means anything to speak of, or is worth enduring.

And those who believe in God, as surveys report so many Americans do, have the thorny fact to deal with, that innocents may be smothered while those who seem less innocent live comfy lives, dying full of years and honors in their beds.

Some work this out to their satisfaction, but I no longer expect to understand it, not in Colombia and not in a hospital and not in a country road where some kid is wailing over a dead pup.

But I think it may work like this, that man first dreams the dream, then the dream dreams the man. So that he invents or discovers symbols, but they then have a life of their own and shape him anew. Not that he ever knows how close they are to reality, only that he will not live without them.

In troubled sleep one may dream of a flood without foothold, and wake up with body trembling. Or see in a dream a pit of human cries, stifled in a trice and level with seething mud. And moving across that surface with dry hoof a sheep, of all creatures; maybe one once fetched home by a shepherd who now lies lost with the rest. How poorly designed the beast is, to carry a banner, yet it carries one, and the shepherd's sign is on it. The shepherd once cared for him, but now the sheep alone still lives to bear his standard.

These are strange dreams and we all have them. But then we are the stuff of dreams, bizarre and surreal distortions, but human for all that and well worth knowing.

So I saw in my dream the thousands vile in death, and didn't know why they died or why I had to see them. Then in the way of dreams they were changed. These are they that are washed and clean and before a throne.

And I wondered how old and ragged this dream was, screening for me in my sleep, like film from some flickering archive. And again I saw the pit and again the dumb unsullied sheep. And he entered the dreadful field, to bring his shepherd home.