We’re fascinated by death — when it happens to other people. Victorian Chief Commissioner Simon Overland tried to remind Australians that the murder of Carl Williams was no different from anyone else but his admonition fell on deaf ears. The media turned this murder into a gala spectacle soon enough and here at newmatilda.com we wondered about the apparently bottomless appetite of Australian audiences for death. Why are we so drawn by this kind of grizzly spectacle? Is it all just a distraction from our own mortality? We knew these questions would either keep us awake at night or force us to prove our youth by undertaking some reckless death-defying stunt so we called in the News Therapist. Here’s how she talked us right down to earth.
On Monday morning Carl Williams probably didn’t know he was going to die.
Maybe he was absorbed by the day-to-day of his life in Barwon, looking forward to some things and dreading others. Seeing his face in the mirror, maybe it looked the same as yesterday. Maybe he noticed the lines were more pronounced under his eyes. If he did have an inkling that he was a target, the fear of death did not paralyse him.
Most of us spend our lives believing that death won’t ever come for us. I wake up, stumble to the loo, stub my toe on the same crack in the floor and wonder whether there’ll ever be enough money to fix it. I go to yoga and wish for the hundredth time that I had been born with a bendy body, and wonder whether I can make it happen in my lifetime.
But I shy away from being aware of how long that lifetime might be. I step back from the edge when I begin to wonder about how much time I really have. In these moments of the day I am not living in time, I am living as if time doesn’t exist, as if I have an endless stretch of forever in which to make mistakes and to correct them again. How do we avoid the reality of time? How do we suspend the knowledge that we will all be dead some day? What are the consequences of our death-defying behaviours?
One of the ways we deny our own mortality is to see ourselves as special. Death, and its antecedents — old age, frailty and helplessness — are so mundane, so chain-store. If we’re special, if we’re different, we might just be special enough to avoid such a common and banal fate, might we not?
Sometimes other people are special, like Carl. We may say to ourselves, quietly, that Carl died because he was a violent man imprisoned with other violent men. We might do a little psychological tap dancing to avoid consciousness of our shared fate. Live by the sword, die by the sword. My mind does a neat little set of tricks that goes something like this: I’m not a man, not a murderer, not in jail. Just beyond my awareness, is my conviction that I won’t die because I’m nothing like him. My place is a sword-free zone.
Most of us really do pretend we will live forever. We have dreams of futures towards which we don’t work, and yet we can’t quite let go of these dreams. Take a quick trawl through your fantasy lives. Have you tried to make any of those lives happen? Have you found other ones — or do some of these dreams hang on stubbornly, asking you to believe that anything’s possible, that there’s always time? My fantasy of being a bass player in an all-girl band is particularly resistant. The girl bit is definitely long gone for me.
I’m always amazed that vampire shows rarely explore the potential for being bored while getting on with living forever. Really living forever. Instead most — and yes, even the delightful Buffy — touch on the poignancy of the death of mere mortals, while the vampires, those special ones, live on. Grief and guilt over past misdeeds apparently keep them quite busy, but the thrill of immortality seems to eclipse the dullness of perpetual existence.
It takes the intensity out of life to pretend it will last forever. It becomes one of those long movies where you wonder if the editor went on holiday half way through. Time gives us a frame, makes things more or less important and helps us to build our lives with some meaning. If I think I have forever, how will I know a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity when I see one? Rather than a fear of death, maybe we are most afraid of living?
Pretending we’re immortal works well but an outright power struggle with death is often more effective when we are really hard pressed to deny our own mortality. Exerting power over other people — including the outright killing of others — in a strange way can protect us from the fear of our own death and helplessness. Again and again, we have survived and the other has been vanquished or has died. We’re the last one standing.
Extreme sports, where I can invite death to my party, also allow me the possibility of seeing myself as even more powerful. As if it’s not there all the time, I imagine I’ve summoned my fate. Look! There’s nothing to be afraid of!
For some people, suicide is a way to meet death on our own terms and in our own time. I will decide when, where and how I die, in the face of terrible pain and uncertainty. Maybe Carl woke fearless on Monday morning. Maybe his killer felt momentarily afraid of nothing.
When we act as if we are fearless, when our ways of living bring us into danger constantly, we can lose the capacity to learn. We just repeat. There is no place for the past or the future, only the present. We can begin to feel as if we fear nothing. Rather than becoming desensitised to death, we become more afraid of nothingness.
I remember coming home one evening at the end of a long, stress-filled period of overwork, and being unable to remember what it was people did in the evenings when they weren’t working. Working constantly protects us from the fear of death by giving us a ready-made life purpose. Otherwise we are left to think for ourselves. Do I want to spend what could be my final hours watching Masterchef?
As I get older I feel more and more afraid. Of small things, especially. The rollercoaster I used to love, doing a headstand, driving fast. Somehow I have come to understand better than I did when I was younger, that I can die. I really can. It happens all the time. Since it doesn’t feel like I’ll live forever, I now can be too careful. Like with anything precious, I can protect it too much and not enjoy it enough. I can imagine I’m safer on the ground than upside down. Some of our fears — of heights, of flying, of animals — are little messages that death can be just around the corner. They offer us the illusion that the plane is the scary place where death lives, so if we just don’t fly …
The question of what I’m doing with my life is not one I have to face when my life is constantly in danger. I can face the danger outside — instead of facing the difficult questions within. When my husband was sick a couple of years ago, I never thought about the crack in the floor, or longed for a more flexible body, I just wanted him to go on living. If I’m a target in prison, the business of life is reduced to its basic elements. I am more free of the fear of death, because my choices have been so drastically and violently reduced that death is all that is left.
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