Sure enough, the man began walking backwards, gesturing wildly. "I am famous for chopping off people's heads in the 1800's," he yelled, excitedly. "What is my name!?" I felt like it was a riddle straight out of a video game. If I got the right answer, I thought, maybe he'd give me a special sword because it's dangerous to go alone. My first inkling was actually to stop in my tracks and respond to the inaccuracies of his riddle. "Well, actually buddy, you're a few centuries off," I would start, proceeding to launch into a chronological analysis of the tradition of western capital punishment. It took a lot of willpower, but I simply mumbled "executioner," and went on with my day.
This could be a fun story about how I view life in the city, and the availability of bizarre and thought-provoking material at every turn. In a way, I think it is. For me though, I operate upon the connections I forge during daily life, and this called upon an idea I'd had for some time. It made me think right away about death, of course. And how everyone is basically very cool with the idea, in the abstract. When it has a face, and is a symbol, and categorized. Here's a man with a hood, inaccurately riddling people in the streets to get his jollies. He represents an idea, and as long as it remains within certain social confines, most people will probably not think twice about it. Maybe one or two people he solicits will be uncomfortable and leave with a bad taste in their mouths, but for the most part, I imagine a lot of folks will be thoroughly entertained by the man's shenanigans.
What is it about death that makes it so easy to deal with as a clear symbol, something brutally and often inaccurately portrayed in mainstream culture? And what is it about death that makes it so easy to symbolize, so easy to make into a caricature and focal point of such intense negativity? Death is a man in a black hood. That's good -- this man is a symbol and an automatic enemy. Death can be a disease. Even better -- you can fight a disease, engage in a battle, and come out triumphant. It's often easier to fight a disease as a concept than a man in a black hood as a concept. Because an executioner is state-sanctioned, and he's still a person, and we can identify with aspects of his nature. We absolutely cannot identify with a disease, a ruthless and unflinching organism or state of malfunction within our own bodies, that has no personification, and simply doesn't care, because it doesn't think or reason, and it has no sympathy, and is not state-sanctioned, or sanctioned by any force that human beings can readily comprehend. As a symbol, it can be broken down into polarizing and unrealistic interpretations and handled more clearly.
Because it's easier to make a symbolic fight out of something than to face the full extent of its terror. Cancer is very much a symbolic battle these days, much to the chagrin of anyone diagnosed with the disease. We are not fighting a symbolic enemy, but attempting to survive with a condition that doesn't have motives. That's a paralyzingly scary thought. Death is a scary concept to most of us, and I firmly believe in Irvin Yalom's existential psychology -- I believe the man is 100% accurate in his conclusion that the highest motivating factor in anyone's life is the conscious or unconscious anxiety spawning from the fact that someday life will end. I don't know that it isn't okay to create symbols that serve as focal points for certain emotions and fears, but it does seem a bit juvenile after my own experience with the real facts of death and dying.
It's possible that there's a way to bridge the gap. I believe the bridge will be built firmly from education and genuine awareness. Self-analysis is of huge importance in matters relating to such extreme finality. It's very difficult to be comfortable with thoughts that you believe by extension will threaten your very existence. But if these thoughts allow you to improve your circumstances and that of others going forward, then it might be time to deal with your fears, because not doing so would be selfish. It's okay to be afraid. It's not okay to create limitations revolving around your fears that prevent you from dealing with reality, and force others to go along with that. Soon there will have to be a real conversation about the ethics of death and dying. I feel fortunate that I was raised by a family that was abnormally comfortable with the subject, due to the fact that my mother is a hospice social worker. I've been addressing the idea in one way or another my whole life, mostly in an analytic and observational way, and then suddenly in a very practical way. I feel that it's important to assemble the collective powers on this one, and find the sense of duty possessed by those of us who have faced the issue in a practical way. We hold certain keys that can succeed in opening doors that are sealed with the utmost apprehension. There's so much wisdom and hope that comes arm-in-arm with facing these issues in a practical way, and that needs to be expanded upon and shared. It's a top priority of mine to find a way to do this that will succeed, and will benefit the baseline happiness and self-awareness of the human condition for generations to come.