There are few moments in this life that carry as much weight as being present when someone die. I remember sitting with a dear friend whose mother was facing the end of cancer’s vicious and merciless assault. The two of them were not especially close, with years of empty and unretrievable space between them. Yet, during these final hours, I could sense some semblance of closure between them, amidst the pain. I stood with him by her bedside, listening to her labored breathing, knowing that we were holding space in that delicate terrain between the valley of life and void of death, waiting by the roadside of existence, helpless to fight a foe whose victory was soon to come.
To look someone else’s pain so directly in the eye in this way takes a steady heart and a measure of unwavering kindness. Taxing at times, it’s a gift that I am grateful for. To know that you are a conduit of care in a moment of need is a present with a heavy emotional prices tag, but worth giving nonetheless. When the race was over and the heavy vale of grief descended upon the room, the magnitude of the moment brought with it a revelation. This scene, one so punctuated with personal loss, has played out countless millions, if not billions of times, the sting of death unleashing a whirlwind of emotions, from relief to anguish and even guilt. It happens to the poor and wealthy, the academic and the laborer. Accepted as a part of the human experience, this is a play where the scenery changes but the brute impact remains the same. It’s our commonality, one we never seem prepared for, no matter the lead up.
On reflection, to talk about the impact of death and its power to bring misery, is to also think of all the paths that lead to it. Some arrive at this scene suddenly: a tragic accident, a heart attack, aneurism, suicide or other such instant deaths. Others enter this space after long battles with disease or drug addiction. It’s as if at the scene of death, you can stand still and look backward at the winding paths that lead to the end, full of turns and twists, peaks and valleys, sunrises and sunsets. Each life is a story and death can be one of the few times where we get to stop and reflect on a life spent well or otherwise. The stories are personal, varied and painted with the colors of emotions that make us such unique creatures.
Every day, in multiple languages, displayed on glowing screens around the globe, this exact phenomena happens repeatedly. We’ve become conditioned to consider what is heart-wrenching in the personal as entertainment for the public.
Think of the stories of death in your family and friend circle. Some are precious, full of life lessons and bright spots of unbounded joy. Other life journeys are varied and hard to weigh, some with few joyful moments to grasp onto. It is often the case that these stories, even the most difficult of them, gain value to us over time, as we try to deal with the unimaginable loss that death sells and the sometimes years of grieving soon to follow. I wonder though: if someone approached you and told you that they were going to take these stories, hire actors to portray the deceased and all the peripheral players, mix in some commercials and offer it to the public as entertainment, would you sell? Every detail, nuanced or not, would be paraded in front of countless eyes, chopped up into segments designed to keep the viewer engaged and engrossed, voyeurs in the theater of pain? It hardly seems enticing, and yet every day, in multiple languages, displayed on glowing screens around the globe, this exact phenomena happens repeatedly. We’ve become conditioned to consider what is heart-wrenching in the personal as entertainment for the public.
We’ve made the tellers of such stories millionaires, many times over. We take tales of trauma, suffering, violence, misery and mayhem and made them a daily part of our intake, waiting with bated breath for the next installment of carnage. Our appetite is almost insatiable. We make heroes out of villains and laugh at their helpless victims. Those dimwitted enough to stand in their way are pushed aside and vanquished. We’ve become masochists, greedily recording doom and death, binging on broken hearts and homes, fattened by stories that would tear us to pieces if they were our real lives. It is the greatest of cons, this theater of suffering that we can’t seem to stop enjoying. Fiction with happy endings are for the weak; the strong want to be disturbed and left breathless. Hope is a tumor that must be removed and replaced by protagonists with little to offer but profane observations and merciless reprisals.
True, there are still storytellers who weave tapestries of hopefulness and triumph, but if we really took an honest assessment of what we call entertainment, it’s not hard to see that the scale has tipped. It leans heavily to the left, weighted down with the mined miserable parts of the human condition, creating scene after scene of darkness. For the sensitive among us, this parade leads to a state of empathic exhaustion, moving many of us to find solace in other planes. There really is no need for any of us to buy into this manufactured and packaged non-food. Instead, ask yourself: where are all the beautiful stories? They’re out there. Let’s find them and tell those.
There is nothing wrong with happy endings. There is something right about being uplifted by what entertains us. Life has enough challenges to suffice. We don’t need dramas layered with trauma. Instead, head to a museum and ponder the wonders of the creative mind. Go outside and smell the freshness of life, floating free in the atmosphere. Play with children. Run with pups. Let the screens, handheld and massive, rest. Read a stirring biography of a life well-lived.
The next time we find ourselves staring death in the face, let’s be reminded of the value of life and the journey that lead us to these final moments. There is beauty there. Beauty in reflection, in contemplation, in forgiveness, in mercy, in kindness, in closure, in love. These private moments are personal and precious. Not intended for entertainment, but valued because life is precious and worth every breath. No commercials required.