Distance From Death
Copyright © by Len Holman, 12/2/10
Imagine an enquiring sociologist from a galaxy far, far away. This being is doing some research on Earth’s most prosperous political entity, the United States—specifically attitudes toward death and dying. Publish or perish is a mandate on her planet, too, so she has to get as much information as she can and re-arrange it into academic-speak for her superiors so she can keep her university job and tenure. So she alights here and begins her investigations. And what does she discover?
She finds a culture awash in every conceivable form of violence and death ever imagined by anyone in the universe. She sees video games that feature more killing on levels one to ten than in the planet’s last two world wars (and the various small ones) combined. She finds our movies and TV filled with explicit and implicit death. Our news shows, especially at the local level, seem to her to revel salaciously in the implied deaths and gruesome violence of car crashes, police shoot-outs, kidnapping of children by evildoers whose mug shots, which seem to be drawn by psychotics with broken black crayons, are displayed prominently on America’s screens, with dire warnings about their past dark deeds. She finds school violence, especially the implied threats of physical and social violence inherent in bullying, increasing. She finds, not only actual wars, but wars on the brink of starting or states making preparations to start one or states possessing both the materials and mentally unstable elements in leadership to walk the fine line of war versus uneasy peace. She also finds violence and death threats in politics, and she finds that our exchange medium (called money, she learns) is used to visit violence and death on others or to buy the services of proxies who will do so. This stuff, this money, is also used as a weapon by withholding from many the goods and services it can be used to acquire, resulting in loss of hope, depression, lack of medical and social care, and the resultant—sometimes, perhaps much more often than suspected by the society in which they live—premature and unnecessary death. Everywhere she looks, she finds death and dying and she finally comes to the conclusion that this culture is obsessed with, and voyeuristically embraces, death. She would be right about the voyeurism, but wrong about the rest.
We are quite a distance from the time when families were present at death, with immediate experience with it. We are quite a long way when grandpa—a very old man—was seen to get sicker and sicker, and finally die, to be buried in the family plot out back. And also a far distance from a time when acute illness, many of which no longer haunt the First World, led to death, which was viewed by family and community as a part of the process of being alive. Several factors make this possible, among which are the increasing life expectancy and the decrease in mortality rates. Another circumstance is the generational distance we now take for granted. We move a lot and we move away from grandparents and never really see their decline and demise as we did 100 years ago. There is also the major influence that certain life-saving technologies have become standard (for some), and thus people who used to die 100 years previous don’t die now—at least not right away. In some cases, of course, these very technologies have prolonged life at the cost of the quality of that life. If our extraterrestrial professor was paying closer attention, she would have notice something else antithetical to her conclusion: Our visual media.
We show death in all its permutations, we HINT at it and shiver with delight, and take on avatars in games to kill and be killed, but we also embrace death’s opposite. We are currently in a zombie and vampire boom in movies, TV, etc. This seems to be in line with the death theme, but it is not. Zombies ARE dead, but continue to function, albeit slowly. They are robotic and mobile and don’t lie down with their hands folded and lay still. For all intents and purposes, they live. Vampires are dead to being human, but have immortality on their side. If one closely examines these fiends of the media, one sees the longing for, not death, but life, even life with its downside, but life at any cost. In fact, what our sociologist would be seeing, if she observed closely, is the fleeing from death, the absolute repudiation of death and dying, the thanatos rejected, the acceptance of death as a part of life, denied. One example would scream out this theme for her: the absolutely obsessive compulsion with body image in the land. Millions are spent on exercise equipment, botox injections, cosmetic surgery, hair dyes, lip-enhancing shots of collagen, and an increasing emphasis on youth and youth culture in clothes, drinks, videos, and movies—despite the aging of the population and despite the evidence surrounding everyone of decay and death as people live longer and hang around. It is an astonishing feat of head-in-the-sand living, a psychological defense mechanism of staggering proportions and duration. A demented refusal to accept what comes to every living creature, everywhere in the cosmos.
The conjunction of the voyeuristic viewing of faux death and dying, the denying of aging and the attempts to pretend ageing doesn’t touch anyone, combined with the mad rush to have rippled abs, big breasts which never sag, and no gray hair…ANYWHERE (if any hair is to be found), creates a schizoid society which loves to peep at death many times removed, but will not confront its own mortality, which creates products –machines, surgeries, pills, theme parks, movies, and all manner of returning the society to childhood status—which can only result in tragedy.
Within the clouded, frightened mentality of this society, our sociologist finally realizes, death happens only to others—mostly people with different colors of skin, speaking strange tongues, living in squalor far, far away. Even when a deadly tragedy hit close, and the resultant outpouring of help is immense, it is little more than the monetary equivalent of pushing someone away, keeping it all at a safe distance, and it is quickly forgotten. It MUST be forgotten if the fantasy of eternal youth and immortality is to be maintained, and at the end of her investigations, our alien researcher sits in the shade of a tree and ponders upon a society which will not grow up and refuses to grow old. Her research had given her information on other cultures which acknowledged the florescence and decay of life. She knew of societies which gave proper place to mortality and she knew this society wasn’t ready to do any of that. She didn’t know if it would EVER be ready.
When she left to return to her own world, she had plenty of research notes, enough to write many papers and ensure her stay at the university. But she was saddened to see a potentially great society dying while desperate to avoid death. It was an irony only the living who were aware of death could appreciate, an irony those she had come to study would never understand.
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