Opinion: Fearlessness and achievement

POSTED: 11/20/13 6:23 PM

Is death entertainment? Dutch TV is in its fourth season of a program called over My Dead Body and in the United States Time of Death follows suit. It’s not really fun to watch though, because the American version follows chronically ill people that are going towards the inevitable end of their lives.

Time of Death, Bart Smout writes in the Volkskrant, is unexpectedly confrontational. If the series makes one thing clear it is that the modern world had done its utmost to hide death somewhere behind the scenes.

There is death and then there is death: there are differences. Just consider the action movies coming out of Hollywood; they usually feature an abnormal number of dead bodies. That seems to be okay, because viewers know they actors are not really dead. They’re playing dead. The horrible images from the Philippines after typhoon Haiyan is obviously a different story.

Smout says that both cases present a “medialized death” pictured according to set patterns. They are sensations that briefly cause a shock but in the end they do not activate our brain and they do not make us think about our own mortality either.

Violence in movies often has an entertainment function, no matter how extreme it is. More dead bodies equal more enjoyment. In Hollywood dead bodies are the garlands of the party.

But what about typhoon Haiyan? What about the images of corpses in a devastated landscape? They mostly remind us how good our lives are. Just like all the other images of violence and doom the news presents on a daily basis. The dead in the news – they do not really affect us.

What is so special about Time of Death is that watching the first episode does lead to self-reflection, because it does not present death in a cinematic or a newsy way. You are watching real people for whom the end is near and who are asking themselves what would still be sensible to do in the time that remains. That question triggered a discussion with a friend that lasted until deep into the night, Smout notes.

The media are not alone in turning death into a lapdog that is easily pushed aside. Our whole society is designed that way. Anti-wrinkle crèmes and cosmetic surgery give us the idea that is it possible to remain young forever. The belief that we are able to eat our way out of illness is widespread. Eat broccoli and chances to attract cancer go down by fifty percent, wildly popular diet books promise. Go to fitness three times a week and you will live ten years longer. Quit smoking to add another couple of years. Before long, we’ll be able to make a digital copy of our brain – and enter a sphere of immortality.

Our society is secretly busy sidelining death. It is an illusion of course, but a pretty tempting one. We pretend that death does not concern us. Even funerals are formal ceremonies whereby we move as fast as possible from the coffin to the coffee table.

Death has become the biggest taboo of our modern time. That is not good. Of course life becomes unbearable if you start thinking about death every day. Smout does not recommend this. But those who deny their own mortality life only half a life, he adds. The way a period gives meaning to a sentence, death gives meaning to life. Reflecting on the finiteness of life – your life – makes you become more aware and drives you to give more meaning to your life.

Smout does a proposal in his Volkskrant-column. Every day is a special day these days, he notes. We have compliment-day, warm jumper-day, red hats-day, and so on – a senseless proliferation of all kinds of special days. We don’t need all of them, not really, so it must be possible to make way for a memento mori day – a day when we reflect on our own mortality. A day when we make death debatable. It would be a good antidote against the frenetic habit to look the other way.

Smout has a point: he touches upon a subject most people prefer to avoid. The work of the American philosopher Joseph Campbell sheds a different light on life and death. Take for instance this quote: “The conquest of the fear of death is the recovery of life’s joy. One can experience an unconditional affirmation of life only when one has accepted death, not as contrary to life, but as an aspect of life. Life in its becoming is always shedding death, and on the point of death. The conquest of fear yields the courage of life. That is the cardinal initiation of every heroic adventure – fearlessness and achievement.”

Here is another piece of Campbell-wisdom: “The conquest of the fear of death is the recovery of life’s joy. One can experience an unconditional affirmation of life only when one has accepted death, not as contrary to life, but as an aspect of life. Life in its becoming is always shedding death, and on the point of death. The conquest of fear yields the courage of life. That is the cardinal initiation of every heroic adventure – fearlessness and achievement.”

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