The Upside of Death

I’ve been listening a lot lately to Dan Carlin and his podcast ‘Hardcore History‘. He began his latest episode concerning the 12th century Wrath of the Kahns, by commenting on a particular stance that historians have taken to this ancient holocaust. If someone were to write a book today, Carlin argues, on the upside of the Third Reich, you would get a lot of attention. In America, where folks are far more invested in their history than in Australia, there would be protests, a lot of radio talkback and so on. This is because the deaths caused by the holocaust happened relatively recently. When we turn our attention to more ancient genocides, we lose the value on human life. The Kahns wiped out millions of people. Alexander the Great and Julius Ceasar killed countless. Yet we look at these men as great men. In fact, if we were to quote Joseph Stalin (and you know, why wouldn’t you?), we’d find a particular piece of profundity: ‘One death is a tragedy. A million is a statistic.’

Carlin makes a forceful argument for holding on to the sense of tragedy that occurs with any seismic shift of history. If we lose that sense of tragedy, then we’re in danger of celebrating tyrants. It’s a logical jump from this argument to suggest that such celebration can lay a dangerous foundation for history to repeat itself.

I can see Carlin’s point, but I’ve been thinking about this whole matter a lot lately. When is it right to let go of grief? Letting go of loss and transcending it is one of the most profound spiritual practises any human being can have. Carlin’s right in saying that we always need to look at history from both sides. But do we always need to weep for the lost? If we commit ourselves to that, then won’t we be shedding tears forever? And wouldn’t we, in fact, not be living the lives that those that died sacrificed themselves for?

I’ve deleted and re-typed this next paragraph a couple of times. It feels incredibly sinful to say. But it’s true. I have difficulty having emotion at ANZAC Day ceremonies. I feel a distant but mostly forgettable pain at the deaths of war. Hell, it only takes me ten minutes to forget about a local death that I may have seen on the news, happening within my city. The logical inference from this would appear to be that I’m a psychopath.

Let me make a case for my defence before you lock me up. I do feel someemotion. But I’m outrageously and selfishly human in how I go about feeling that. The true weight of ANZAC day only hit me in the last couple of years when I realised that I was the age that young men were shipped off to war to fight. I thought of my friends and I getting on a boat to go to the other side of the world to die. The thought shook me. I understood the importance of the day. Similarly, when I imagine war scenarios now, I have to imagine them relative to my own life to feel any kind of sadness. I’d say that’s pretty normal.

My thoughts are further complicated by the spiritual aspect of this over the historical. We are living in an age where we fear death. And it’s warping our image of life. It’s a curse of the modern age that we don’t seem to accept that people die all the time. Many philosophers and spiritual thinkers have commented on this. Prior to this age of medicine, it was common place to lose infants to disease and death before they had lived for a year. Living beyond forty was old age. We’ve become obsessed with staying young. The fear of death is irrational and inevitably finite.

I always go back to when I was writing April’s FoolI interviewed dozens of people on the subject of grief. One interview was markedly different from all the others. A relative of the central young man who had passed showed little to no grief about twelve months after the passing. She had spent a lot of years working as a funeral director. The resolution I saw in her attitude was staggering. ‘I’m here to look after the living,’ she said. ‘People die. It’s awful and sad, but it happens all the time. We were lucky to have the time with the passed person that we did. Now they’re gone. One day, I’ll be gone. That’s how it works. Now, we look after the living.’ Despite my best efforts, I didn’t feel as though I could incorporate this interview into the play. It was too wildly different from every other person I’d interviewed. I still struggle with weather this anomaly was the most unusual because it was the most cold, or the most enlightened.

The spiritual thinkers I tend to listen to speak openly about death. In Buddhism, we’re taught non-attachment. Non-attachment to life and to our earthly, limited bodies. Even Christianity, which currently defends ‘the right to life’ with occasionally militant gusto, promises the concept of eternal life. Meaning that death is meaningless. It is a thing that occurs, and will always occur.

This doesn’t stop it being sad, but it’s way more complicated (and simple) than just crying tears. It gets easier with time, as Dan Carlin has noted. We need to remember death, but not fear it, or run away from it. I’ve recently discovered this piece of Shakespeare, from Cymbeline. And it’s quickly becoming one of my favourites:

Fear no more the heat o’ th’ sun

Nor the furious winter’s rages;

Thou thy worldly task hast done,

Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages.

Golden lads and girls all must,

As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.

Fear no more the frown o’ th’ great;

Thou art past the tyrant’s stroke.

Care no more to clothe and eat;

To thee the reed is as the oak.

The sceptre, learning physic, must

All follows this and comes to dust.

Fear no more the lightning flash,

Nor th’ all-dreaded thunder-stone,

Fear not slander, censure rash;

Thou hast finish’d joy and moan.

All lovers young, all lovers must

Consign to thee and come to dust.