You Have No Idea What Death Is: Our Dangerous Love Affair with Obliteration
I love Denzel Washington. I’ve had a girl crush on that man for his entire career. Few actors have delighted and entertained me as much. So when The Equalizer came out, I was ecstatic (even more so than John Wick. I’m not the chick flick type. Look, I even love all three Expendables). I’ve nearly worn out that DVD.
Same thing with Equalizer 2. Washington hasn’t done sequels prior to this, but this character apparently spiked the public’s interest enough that he was willing to return. Boy did he.
Washington’s character, a one-time CIA assassin named Robert McCall, has found a new purpose after disappearing himself following the death of his beloved wife. In both of these movies, he takes on vicious characters in the name of doing the right thing (one assumes it’s the right thing, the movie assumes you agree with the wholesale righteous bloodshed).
For many of us, that’s enormously appealing. Whether it’s beating the shit out of a bunch of smug frat boys for raping an intern or taking on a rogue team of killers, his character — at least for me — makes me want to stand up and cheer. A moral man.
However, there’s one scene in particular which I find riveting if for no other reason than the dialogue speaks to an entire generation. To all of us, in fact.
McCall has gone to a dangerous apartment building to pull Miles, a young man that he has befriended, out of harm’s way, before that (hopeful) artist commits a revenge murder for his brother’s senseless gang killing.
In an altercation in the first floor McCall challenges the young man to kill him if he wants to be a gangster. Miles backs off, then McCall gets in his face and yells at him. Here’s the scene from the beginning:
McCall, who has lost his wife to cancer, does know what death is. He fully understands the grief, loss and devastation it causes. He deals it out himself. This kid Miles has no clue.
What so struck me about this scene was that it felt to me as though Washington was addressing an entire generation of young people- people who are right on the cusp of making an irreversible choice. Whether by virtue of the people whose company we keep, or the choices we make about our health, drug or alcohol use, too many of us flirt with oblivion. We want to escape, we feel we’re worthless, a gang gives us the family we don’t have, we’re starving our selves to death (or drinking ourselves to death, the end product is the same). We feel life is a burden.
For many, there’s something noble and artistic about hopelessness and grief. People born into privilege and opportunity, people who don’t spend their young lives rummaging through dumps to find rotting food to stay alive. People for whom a day without food or the company of friends is simply incomprehensible. Yet so many who have that and a hell of a lot more are deeply invested in their glorious sadness. O woe is me.
Once we’ve decided this, we get invested in being right about our worthlessness. This does several things: if we telegraph this to those around us who care, we manipulate them into spending a great deal of time trying to convince us otherwise. Great strategy, that. Goodbye, cruel world…oh wait, my parents are here. I’ll give it a rest for a while.
For some, it’s very easy to get hooked on the romance of dying, especially dying young. After all look at the 27 Club (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/27_Club). People become so very famous for offing themselves before thirty. This notion of gaining notoriety by dying young has an unfortunate attractiveness to it.
The problem is that those who have done this to themselves aren’t around to enjoy said notoriety but that doesn’t seem to land in the collective consciousness.
In a 2008 ABC story about stars who died young, this is how the author describes Sid Vicious: In the end, his death at 21 further romanticized his tragic life of junkie glamour.https://abcnews.go.com/Entertainment/story?id=4174733&page=1
I have to wonder how glamorous Philip Seymour Hoffman felt when he died.
I struggle to find the romance in that young man’s life. Or, in the lives of gangsta rap stars who wage cross-country wars and end up being shot multiple times. Help me out with this. The glamour, such as it is, affixes to them after a short, brutal, drug-addled, violent life.
Glamorous? Oh, please.
Yet like this young man Miles in Equalizer 2, we each have talent. We have a chance. A shot.
The Goth movement which began in the 1980s and is still world wide has an ongoing love affair with horror films, death, and a variety of other dark themes. Look. There’s nothing wrong with flirting with ideas, themes, music, literature, movies.
It is a problem if we waste a life by being so fascinated with Death that we dive right in, convinced that it’s just got to be ever so much better on the other side. The other problem is that we have no clue what’s on the other side. Religious beliefs aside (thank you for the fairy tales), death is irreversible- we don’t get to hang around and enjoy how much people miss us, and the damage that we inflicted upon them for daring to bring us into such a cold, cruel world.
This past year I heard a story on Colorado Public Radio about rising suicide rates in my state. I nearly drove onto the sidewalk when the story described a five year old boy who was seriously contemplating suicide.
He wasn’t alone. Another nine-year-old child did indeed complete: https://people.com/crime/colorado-boy-commits-suicide-after-school-bullying-being-gay/
Some are fascinated by the idea of Death, such as in this essay by Jason Choi: https://www.pennreview.org/why-i-am-obsessed-with-death-and-why-it-makes-me-happy/.
This paragraph stood out: It is easy to fall into sentimentality and turn this into yet another mawkish lamentation on why I am in fact a deeply broken and brooding person. I am not. If there is anything I noticed from hanging out with young liberal arts students is that many of us artistic souls love to be seen as tortured and hence, special. It is like a dick-comparison game on the schoolyard where kids see who has the longest penis; only, in this case, the proverbial dick is whatever tragedy we can contrive based on the brief, inevitable moments of sadness in our privileged little lives. (author bolded)
Choi sums it up very succinctly. We celebrate our sadness, our grief is our succor, our depression about how entitled we are and how nobody understands us the excuse for wallowing. Death is the only relief, we wail.
Well, poor little us.
The desperation to be seen as special is a disease of the ego. What’s sad is that the ego will demand its due, and for some, that’s a life ended young, damn the consequences, the pain it causes others. At some level, we see ourselves burnt on the pyre of a hard life, our short stories somehow raised to legend.
Um, no they aren’t. Jimmy Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, maybe, but not the rest of us. We’re just fertilizer. And in the process, we befoul the lives of those who gave us life, who love us.
My brother committed suicide six years ago. His final act was to write a note to his girlfriend saying I only wanted to make you happy. Then he downed pills, threw back half a bottle of Tequila and expired in the front seat of his Jeep in her driveway. My brother wanted to punish her, and he did. The level of selfishness of this act boggles the mind.
My brother, immensely talented across so many spheres, was far more invested in his poor, sad, wasted life than he was in sharing his considerable gifts.
There’s a scene towards the end of Tombstone that has always stuck in my mind, especially as it relates to my brother and many like him. Doc Holliday, played by Val Kilmer, is asked by Wyatt Earp why the evil Johnny Ringo does what he does: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NqF7ZD64bwY
Revenge for being born.
I am no stranger to depression. It’s been a handmaiden all my life. Its ups and downs, and the times I have also contemplated a swift end to what I considered a life not worth living, have been lessons in getting a grip. Learning to live. Ultimately choosing life, because frankly, it’s the only one I have. You too. Until some moke is dead for a few years and is resurrected long enough to write a bestseller about the experience, we frankly don’t know shit. That means we have to deal with what we do know which is strictly limited to our existence, right here, right now. The rest is all pure speculation.
Given that, we are going to experience sadness, grief, pain, loss, devastation. Without those we cannot appreciate joy. There is no way to gauge light if there is no dark. The times I’ve been in the depths inform how I feel when I am standing on top of a mountain in Africa, or riding a fine horse at speed across an Egyptian dune. I chose life. Life chose me back.
The Equalizer character Robert McCall was devastated by the death of his wife. He ultimately found redemption in doing what he did best: fight for those who couldn’t fight back. In both films, he is shown engaging with everyday people at all levels. Helping a coworker’s mother clean up a fire-ravaged restaurant (he later took care of the crooked cops who had done it), returning a kidnapped child to her mother. He uses his considerable skills to right wrongs, even as he struggles with his own loss.
It is this rise from the ashes of his personal loss that defines his character in the movie. That’s why his challenge to young Miles is so powerful.
Life itself owes us nothing. The fact of your birth and mine, that we even exist, is such a miracle of accidents and happenstances that resulted in our having shown up.
Perfectly put by the inimitable Bill Bryson:
“Not one of your pertinent ancestors was squashed, devoured, drowned, starved, stranded, stuck fast, untimely wounded, or otherwise deflected from its life’s quest of delivering a tiny charge of genetic material to the right partner at the right moment in order to perpetuate the only possible sequence of hereditary combinations that could result — eventually, astoundingly, and all too briefly — in you.”
― Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything
Yet increasingly, we squander this happy happenstance, that of our existence on what is, arguably, one hell of a beautiful planet, being pissed off about being born, feeling entitled that we deserve more than we have, and falling into funks about what we’re owed.
Too many of us throw the life we were given back at our Maker in the ultimate fuck you gesture: suicide, self-destruction, death by substance abuse, starvation, stupid selfie tricks, whining, complaining, pissing and moaning about what we’re owed. This in a country where there is arguably more opportunity for any of us than anywhere else on Earth. There are vast numbers of folks for whom life is indeed an awful struggle. Yet they persevere despite the odds and despite the pain.
You have a shot. That’s all you need.
You and I don’t know what death is. We have no idea. Only those who have died have a clue. Since I’m not a religious person, I don’t ascribe to the notion of heaven or hell (I think heaven is right here on earth, such that we make of our existence anyway). However, I do believe, in my own way, in the Soul’s Dominion. From my favorite poem by Amelia Earhart, this extraordinary woman who gave her life to bravery:
Courage is the price that Life exacts
for granting peace.
The soul that knows it not
Knows no release from little things:
Knows not the livid loneliness of fear,
Nor mountain heights where bitter
joy can hear
The sound of wings.
How can life grant us boon of living,
For dull gray ugliness and pregnant
Unless we dare
The soul’s dominion? Each time we
make a choice, we pay
With courage to behold the resistless
And count it fair.
Life is fair. It’s fair in the sense that you and I and all the other 7.6 billion souls on this marble have a life. We all have latent talent. We all possess gifts that we can hardly countenance. If anything is owed anyone, we owe this world a well-lived life in exchange for being born.
In the early hours of the brand new year, I would invite you (once your headache clears up, and I would posit a few of you might wish you really were dead right now, but I digress) to consider how immensely fortunate you are. You and I are alive. Thousands aren’t. You and I still have a shot. Millions don’t.
Kindly, what are you going to do with yours?
As the sun struggles up to shed a little light on my icy lawn, I choose to behold the restless day and count it fair.
I hope you do, too.