Coming to terms with the complexity of life and the fear of death

I thought I’d write a lighthearted, cheery post, sort of a gift that keeps on giving throughout the year ahead, so naturally, I wrote (and made a video) about how complicated life is and how we’re all afraid of dying, but we shouldn’t be, because zombies and vampires… Wait, what?!

“We trouble our life by thoughts about death, and our death by thoughts about life.” ― Michel de Montaigne

“It is not that we have so little time but that we lose so much… The life we receive is not short but we make it so; we are not ill provided but use what we have wastefully.” ― Seneca

“You are mistaken, my friend, if you think that a man who is worth anything ought to spend his time weighing up the prospects of life and death. He has only one thing to consider in performing any action – that is, whether he is acting rightly or wrongly, like a good man or a bad one.” ― Plato

Here’s (more or less) what I talked about in the video.

Whatever your beliefs about life after death, one thing is for certain: this life you’re living now will end within the span of a few decades. That’s pretty short and it’s no wonder we have a hard time dealing with that notion.

I’d like to submit to you that one way we grapple with death is through the introduction of death-less characters into popular culture. Nowadays, those characters are vampires and zombies. We call both of them undead and we’ve made up all sorts of fiction to explain their existence and ways they survive this event that scares us so much. And yet, neither character is something we’d choose rationally, if we were faced with that choice. Both vampires and zombies must continually kill in order to survive and in that sense, they’re terribly selfish: they sacrifice the lives of many innocent others in order to preserve themselves. In escaping death, they force it upon others. And zombies, those putrescent, barely alive corpses, are never first on anyone’s list of ways to prolong existence.

Both these characters though, are ways in which we’re not only dealing with the question of death, but with the question of life. Both offer simplified ways to view and treat an existence which many of us find to be complicated and stressful. Zombies are the perfect example. Instead of dealing with life’s mind-numbing complexity and options, upon becoming a zombie, you have only one option: eat brains. That’s it. No more jobs, bills, taxes, children, etc. Vampires are a bit more complicated and I think that is because they were invented earlier, in the 19th century, whereas zombies, as a manifestation of popular culture, only appeared midway through the 20th century. The more complicated real life will be, the more simplistic the escapism tends to be.

If we’re to stack these deathless characters by level of complexity against others invented throughout history, we find them on the lower rungs of life. If we step back in time, we find that people invented many deathless gods, most of which led far more interesting and complex lives than the humans who believed in them. But as life started to move faster and became more complex and harder to deal with, as we experienced world wars that terrified and scarred entire continents, we began to look for simpler characters and the unfortunate “best” we came up with were blood-sucking parasites that slept in coffins and blabbering, putrid corpses that dragged their rancid meat through cities and the countryside looking for brains. It’s quite sad really, to see where we’ve arrived.

I for one miss the more lofty deathless characters of old, gods who lived interesting, full lives, were articulate, powerful, higher and better than man (though sometimes just as petty and vindictive) and gave us something to look up to. Now we’ve got coffin-sleepers and tomb-climbers… It makes for good escapism through books, TV shows and movies but it does not make for a good alternative to death, nor does it ultimately help us deal with the complexity of life. Instead, we end up terrifying ourselves even more with the various “end of days” scenarios that are fed to us when we watch or read about these characters.

There’s no easy solution to this. Life is only getting faster and more complex. At least it seems that way, because we haven’t yet learned to filter all that is coming our way, and we haven’t learned to only deal with things that are of immediate concern to us. That’s what people did 100 years or more before our time. They didn’t have access to all that we have now. We should do the same. Just because we can have access to something, it doesn’t mean we should introduce it into our lives. We need to turn off the TV more often, put our phones away and spend more time with our selves, getting to know who we are, developing the skills that we deem valuable, exploring nature, sitting in silence. This won’t take us all the way, but it’ll put us in a much better place so we can deal with life. As long as we continue to be terrified by its complexity and by its quickly-approaching end, we’ll continue to look for quick fixes that are sorely inadequate and unrealistic, grotesque versions of ourselves that end up inflicting yet more of the pain and suffering that’s been scaring us but (in theory) take us out of the routine of daily living and offer us a simpler way to see our existence.