Beyond the fear

October 29, 2002|By Crispin Sartwell

EARLY THIS year, my stepfather died. And though the collapse of his body was ugly, Richard Abell died almost beautifully, after a long decline. And he was prepared; he knew death intimately, he had long meditated on his own death, he died peacefully. We buried him on his farm in northern Virginia.

Sometimes, death comes at an appropriate moment, or a moment that seems to have been prepared for all eternity, as with Jesus on the cross. But sometimes, it arrives with the look of absolute arbitrariness, and that is one of the most difficult things human beings have to see and accept.

The very act of pumping gas or shopping at Home Depot or Michael's craft store shows that you do not expect to die right now. Filling your tank, you assume that you will survive at least long enough to drive home.

That is why there is something primal and fearsome in the way people were dying around my hometown of Washington, D.C. The victims are dead before the sound of the shot reaches them.

My brother was killed by gunfire. He was in his late 20s, rude with health. One minute, he was talking to me; not 10 minutes later, I was gaping at his corpse. His death seemed impossible, incomprehensible, wrong. It took me years to settle into a revised reality in which Bob was really dead.

And, of course, though most of us live day by day with the blithe assumption that we will continue to be alive -- and so fill up with gas or stock up on home-improvement supplies -- we all know, too, that we could die at any moment. But we work to fend off this awareness.

We have created a huge machinery to keep ourselves from experiencing death. All of medical and safety technology is devoted to deferring death, pushing it away. Anti-smoking campaigns, anti-cancer research, new generations of drugs: all to keep us alive. The funeral industry helps us try to make death clean, to insulate us from it, to encase it and shroud it in ceremony and routine, to clothe it in a suit and apply makeup to it, to prettify it and make it a sort of quiet parody of being alive.

But just as surely as we reject death, we are devoted to it. The technology that has been evolved for killing is no less elaborate than that devoted to living. As the sniper picked people off from hundreds of yards away, he was simply a twisted reflection and brutal application of this lethal science. And though he may have scrawled "I am God" on a tarot card, he is in his madness and violence all too human.

Death can even be seductive, an abyss into which we need to tumble. We can stare at it, fascinated, either in our popular entertainments -- which are filled to the brim with killing -- or else as a possibility for ourselves, a place to which to escape. Another of my brothers killed himself.

So, suddenly, death was more intimately present for the people around Washington. Suddenly, the act of pumping gas was informed by death; death was present and possible and palpable for us as it was not before.

And though we know cognitively it is unlikely that at any given moment we will take a sniper's bullet, we also know it was unlikely for the people who actually were shot. And we know, by what they were doing, that they were not fully prepared.

The ancient stoics believed that to live rightly, we must live in acquaintance with our own deaths. They believed that once you accepted death you could live without fear. Death was neither something to be evaded nor something to be sought; it just was. "I must die," says Epictetus, "but I need not die whining."

So perhaps the sniper attacks, for all their horror, for all the incomprehensible deprivation they have caused, were also an important occasion to meditate on death, to meditate on our vulnerability and on the ways we have devised to kill one another.

Perhaps beyond the fear, there is a fearless stoicism that confronts and accepts death. And perhaps beyond the ways we have made to kill one another, there are ways that we could create to love one other, if there is still time.

Crispin Sartwell is a syndicated columnist who teaches philosophy at the Maryland Institute College of Art. He can be reached at

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