• Matthew Emerson

"I'd Rather Die": American Culture and Death as Medication

Updated: Dec 19, 2019

"...for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return." (KJV 3:19)

(Today's article is co-authored by Matthew Emerson and Daniel Kephart)

Let's imagine a scene.

You're working in the kitchen. Trying to make the best PBJ in history before work. You're a little rushed. You hurry over to the drawer, and grab the closest butterknife to your hand, which is now shaking from overwhelming hunger. You turn and start to head back to the counter, but in your weakness, you drop the knife. "Argh, I'm just wanna die." This phrase exits the cavern of your mouth, into the wide world for all to hear. Maybe you don't do this, but I do. So do my friends.

This is becoming all too common. Look at the names of some of the meme pages going around. They're coated in depression. They're vessels for nihilism. Now I'm not discrediting the comedic value of a good meme, and sometimes an unexpected laugh about a grim topic does more good than harm. To assume that this is the case, though, it isn't a good idea.

Hidden in these sudden bursts of vocal nihilism--"Just kill me" or "I'd rather die"--is a sort of infectious pathology. Our minds and bodies are becoming rife with an escapism that points to death as an easy out.

Escapism, simply put, is just a way to get away. Sometimes that means physically, but often it means mentally. This isn't always a bad thing, in fact it can be very healthy. Storytelling is one of the oldest forms of escapism, running off into the world of myth and fairy tales is how our ancestors taught truth and character for millennia. This sort of escapism, then, is only natural. When it gets mixed up with fantasizing about death, on the other hand, it can get pretty malicious.

Memorials of fallen warriors mark one way in which we share our ancestors reverence for death.

Our ancestors viewed death with a reverent fear. Their philosophical schools and religions articulated various doctrines and understandings of death and the afterlife. The Christian tradition in particular laid great significance on death. Medieval Christians often recited a Latin phrase, memento mori. Remember death. This wasn't grim fatalism, but an acknowledgment of our limited nature. We are finite creatures, and when we die, our time is over.

This is a horrifying truth. We do not choose the era, country, or family we are born into. Yet we must live this unchosen life and struggle until our eventual death.

Yet, though our circumstances may appear grim, most men and women of history did not succumb to nihilism. They perceived death as a sort of bookend to life. A calling to account, if you will. Christianity, Judaism, and Islam all view death in this manner, assuming the grim reaper is accompanied by a final judgement of the actions of the living. This imbued the grave with a cosmic significance. Today, however, death is not spoken about as a moment of eternal importance. Instead, young people chat about it like an anti-anxiety prescription. Or, worse, an alternative to buckling down and doing their homework. Or, worst of all, an easy way to get back at a significant other for hurting their feelings.

One of the most universal contemporary images of a meaningful death.

The popular dismissal of an afterlife has much to do with this. If death is the significant end to an insignificant life, it seems reasonable to treat it lightly. So we do. The idea of golden streets where women and men walk alongside their saintly predecessors is ridiculed. Life is meaningless suffering, we tell ourselves, and death is the meaningless answer. Not a new beginning, not a transition, but simultaneously the most severe yet optimal numbing agent against the tragedies of life.

The 21st Century is the Age of Medication. If we get a headache, we take strong pain medication. Oxycodone, morphine, or whatever we can get your hands on. And addictions to these substances are rampant. Which is interesting because, for the most part, people don't walk down the street and suddenly decide to become addicted to narcotics. These substances don't fall into our hands--we are actually prescribed them by people who we trust to tell us what will make us well. And the modern definition of "being well" is largely "not feeling pain."

This is the root of the binge culture that manifests itself in banger parties, online pornography, and mixing antidepressants with alcohol. Generally speaking, most people didn't normally do that across time. And societies where such behavior was commonplace (classical Greece, imperial Rome, revolutionary France) were usually on the cusp of disaster. It is not terribly complicated--when we live at extremes, we frequently swing from one to another.

The idea here is not to be alarmist. Most people still do not drink till they blackout every weekend. That sort of crippling alcoholism is still largely recognized as an issue. Still, that's a pretty late stage in the development of a problem to try to reverse course. Try encouraging someone that far along the path to give up their self-medicating alcoholism. Good luck.

There are smaller steps along that road, however, that really can be points for serious intervention. In our own lives we can notice when these nihilistic phrases start creeping into our vocabulary--and they most certainly do. These aren't harmless phrases. Language matters, and how we talk about death is quite capable of creating a feedback loop in how we think about it. Fortunately, the inverse proposition also applies. If we change how we speak about death, we may well change how we approach it.

First of all, death is clearly something to be taken seriously. It is not a "way out." Nor is death an alternative form of medication. Dying will not end your problems or mine, it will simply end you or I. If most major religions are to be believed, it may even compound our problems. We cannot dodge our responsibilities by wishing for what Raymond Chandler fancifully named "the Big Sleep."

Life is a story, take it a chapter at a time.

Yet the question of how we should view death is bound up in another conundrum: How should we live? Our contention here at Chapter of the Day is that life is a story. Full of ups and downs, drama and lulls, our lives are rich with meaning and emotion which connects to the lives of others. A beautiful and inescapable weight of responsibility is to be found in our everyday actions. Embracing these challenges imbues our lives, and our deaths, with true importance. When an accounting is made, then, at the end of our lives our actions truly will matter.

That is a serious and weighty responsibility. It is also something unquestionably worth waking up to do each day.

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