I have been reading in recent days and casual attacks on strangers (or even mass murder) don’t really seem to be getting more frequent. But people feel as though they are. People feel as though these are sitting RIGHT in our lap, so to speak. People hug their kids a little tighter before sending them off to school. People worry.
Part of this, of course is the media feeding frenzy. In the same way Halloween was made a night of fear for many parents by what turned out to be totally made up stories of people putting blades in apples and what not – yes, there was a case of poisoned candy, in California, but it wasn’t random at all, it was a stepfather trying to get rid of his stepson. In the same way, the Tylenol poisonings of the eighties turned out to be a husband’s attempt on his wife, disguised as a bunch of killings of strangers. But the media reports these and people who hear the report often don’t hear the debunking, and next thing you know you are changing the way Tylenol packages its active agent (though other medicines, and vitamins too, happily use capsules) and hospitals are spending time on Halloween x-raying candy.
In the same way the perception that at any minute someone could come into the classroom and let loose with a gun on your kids makes people panic and demand – mostly very bad – legislation, ranging from disarming those who would never commit such a crime, to making sure all the kids behave “normally” to making the life of odd, but perfectly functional people sheer misery.
And part of the horror that allows the media to whip this up is… death. Worse, death of children. (The shooting in the theater in Aurora, CO, though bad, didn’t evoke the horror this does.)
I was thinking about this the last few days and I realized we – we modern people – have a very odd relationship with death.
Look, I’m in no way complaining about this, okay? I want you to understand that upfront. For my final exam in American culture, back in Portugal, I had to read this very stupid book who deduced all sorts of crazy stuff about Americans from the fact our dead are usually embalmed. Frankly, I think the author should have his head examined. (He also went on about our putting people in old age homes, forgetting that our elderly live MUCH longer than normal, which means at the end they need a lot more specialized care. He also seemed not to get the sheer immensity of our territory which means family can be flung all over the continent. Organizing a rostrum to visit grandma and make sure she takes her meds is a tad-bit more difficult than in a village or even a moderately sized town.)
However, I’m a fifty year old woman who has never had to sit with the dying, never had to help prepare a body for burial, and the whole idea of death seems a little unreal – a little odd. Oh, I’ve lost people I loved: both my grandfathers, when I was 14 and 20, but I was going to school and (at the time) this was something to be guarded as it were and also mom thought I was too young, so I was protected from the nitty-gritty of death. Then when my beloved grandmother died I was over here and … well, every time I go over I’m a little shocked that she’s not there, that I can’t go over and have tea with her. I visit her grave, but it’s more like she’s moved to yet another country, one I can’t reach. (Since I believe in life after death, this might be literally true, but not physically true, if that makes sense.)
But even if I had looked after my grandparents as they died, or helped with the burial, I would still have been highly unusual in light of the experiences of my ancestors – and your ancestors too, while we’re at it, only your ancestors would have been far more remote than mine.
My parents are the in-between generation between WWII and boomers. They were both born during WWII. While Portugal was neutral – and of necessity sending supplies to both sides to keep from getting womped. No, I don’t want to hear it about Portugal being craven. This would be far more believable if everyone didn’t go about sainting the Swedes for being neutral. The Swedes didn’t even have Spain next door ready to march in if they went in with the allies. The fact that Portugal didn’t join the axis or violate its treaty with Great Britain is the telling point – apparently more than once it was thought that it would be bombed. They remember some sort of public officials coming around putting tape on the windows to minimize flying glass, and they remember blackout curtains.
Their histories are quite different, too. Though the country was very, very poor – just recovering from bankruptcy – my father was solidly upper middle class, living in a relatively large house and from a family with enough land to grow most of the stuff they needed (though they weren’t farmers.) Mom on the other hand lived in what can only be classed as a slum, in what had once been a prosperous craftsman’s cottage… sometime in Elizabeth’s day, I think. My grandfather came from a wealthy family but had run through the money and sold the land and then run through more money. (He was a brilliant, fascinating AND deeply flawed man. I loved him and miss him still, but I was always aware there was … another side to him.)
However, both of them had – disproportionate numbers, mind – of their classmates die very young. It was so common for mom, in fact, that the favorite game of her childhood was – I swear I’m not making this up – doll’s funerals. Mom explained to me she was prized among her classmates because she made really good cloth dolls. I was stomped. I mean how many dolls could a kid need? Then she explained that she made them, they played with them about a year, and then they had a wake and a funeral for the doll. And then they made another. This is how common death was for them – a normal part of “mothering”, like feeding, cleaning and dressing the kid. Think about that for a moment. Let it sink in.
As I said, I’m not complaining. I like the fact that given my unspectacular fertility, I was able to raise both kids to adulthood and have a better than even chance they’ll outlive me. Kings and Queens in the past lacked this probability. It’s a good thing.
However it makes us weird about death. And it distorts our view of everything.
Accidents most of all. What, you think it’s a coincidence that the more remote the possibility of death, the more we pile on safety mechanisms in cars? The more we make our kids wear helmets and eye protection for perfectly harmless activities? (I think the end run of this is that we pad all the trees, like the royal family of Spain when their kids had hemophilia.)
And it goes further. Any death has become unthinkable. We react with shock to any death that doesn’t take place after protracted illness. We start cowering back from eating meat because “the poor animals” and we shy back from any war and try to have it humane and with ROEs that make it impossible to do what war should do: inflict terror and pain on the enemy until they surrender. (I think this goes hand in hand with no longer knowing how to END a war. We don’t say “We’re going to end it by winning.” Or “It ends when the other guy is rubble.” No, we say “We need an exit strategy.”)
If you think of death as the dark tints of life, we’ve become washed out, and in many ways incomprehensible to cultures in which death is still very common.
I know, I know, culture this, culture that – but in the end I wonder how much of our decay and our seeming wish for suicide, from having too few kids to not being ruthless enough to those who hurt us, comes from the fact that death has come to seem unnatural and strange.
Again, I’m not complaining. I’m no more fond of death than anyone else, and no more resolute in the face of it. I know I might be called upon to die for what I believe in, and that’s fine – it’s much, much harder to accept dying because someone’s clutch slipped, or because I caught some weird virus no one could figure out. And I can’t imagine dying even at 100 without feeling that I’m leaving a lot of stuff undone. Still, I can come to terms with my own death – the death of those I love is something else. I’ve already told Dan he must die after me or I’ll never talk to him again. The thought of losing the kids is unimaginably horrific. Heck, I’m all broken up about the idea of losing a cat within the year, and I’ve lost cats before.
BUT while I wouldn’t want a return to things quasi-ante, and while the solutions I could pose – as a science fiction author – range from the repugnant to the horrible and are all “I don’t want this” (Though some might make interesting stories.) I do wonder what part of our decay, or the decay of our willingness to fight and win, is because death is alien and a surprise to us.
We have become like the elves who spawn rarely and live unnaturally long “blessed” lives. Maybe there is some ancestral memory there. Maybe there is a cycle where you become too comfortable, too little used to death, and then the ruthless cultures come in and destroy you, because they walk with death everyday.
All I know is that in the Elizabethan age, people had a lot of kids and expected to die much younger than we do. (No, don’t want arguments. Shakespeare died at 58 and it was considered a very great age.) They got in brawls on the street over very little. They killed and died with abandon. Death was familiar. This also allowed them to embark to strange lands in ships made of wood, with no real direction, knowing chances were they’d die in the adventure.
We have few kids, we live long, protected lives, and we won’t risk going to space, we won’t risk doing anything that might involve the loss of human lives. And we want someone to protect us from the (very rare) madman with a gun. We want to banish even the specter of that death we don’t really know. We want to continue our happy, sheltered lives.
I wouldn’t trade our conditions for theirs – but neither do I want human civilization to regress because of the consequences of forgetting that the old bony gentleman is always with us, scythe at the ready.
I have no solutions – just a question – now that our children are not in the valley of the shadow of death, how do we teach them that it’s still needed at times to five up life to fight evil?
UPDATE: Post now up at Mad Genius Club.