In real life, death doesn’t bother me nearly as much as it bothers most other people I know. I’ve always looked at death very casually; it’s part of life, and in my belief system it’s just a transition. It’s not that I look forward to death or welcome it, but I’m also not exactly scared of it, nor do I feel the complete sense of loss that some others I know tend to feel.
In addition, I understand a lot about the mechanisms of death. I understand the physical processes and all of that. It doesn’t freak me out.
And, adding to my feelings about death — for me, I have never actually felt like my body was my own. It has never felt right. I think the term for it may be “proprioception,” although that may refer to something more specific than my feeling. For me, it’s just off somehow. I am frequently conscious of my arms and legs, for example, not doing exactly what I think they feel like they’re doing. It’s never so radically far off as to be any more than annoying or perhaps worrisome; it’s just that it feels wrong in a way that I can’t quite describe. I don’t feel like someone else is controlling me or anything nuts like that.
OH! I think I just figured out how to describe it! If you have ever seen one person giving a blindfolded person instructions on how to move about a maze or a room, the person giving the instructions never gets the exact response they expect from the person they’re talking to. It’s kind of like that. If I consciously tell my muscles to do x, they can’t execute it the way I think about it. They come close, most of the time. Sometimes — like when I’m trying to figure out how to shoot a layup — they’re profoundly and embarrassingly wrong.
The only times I feel like my limbs are acting correctly is when I’m using them more subconsciously — like when I’m typing or drumming, something that I do through a combination of instinct and training. Then, I feel right.
I explained all that about my proprioception (if that’s the right word) to say this: based on my belief system, my acceptance of all people as people regardless of their physical condition, and my weird feeling of “wrong body,” I have pretty much always considered the body to be talented meat. I am far, far more interested in the computer running it — the brain — and the personality inside it.
When the person dies, I barely care about what happens to the body, as long as it’s respectful. And frankly, the only reason that I care that it’s respectful has nothing to do with the person who died; it has to do with the survivors. I care about their personhoods (is that a word?), not the physical reality of the corpse.
Death does not faze me that hard
But injury and illness… I struggle a ton with that. And for me, it is once again about the people inside. I don’t like seeing people battling to recover from things. I worry about their emotional well-being too much. I hate being sick for more than a day, not just because being sick just sucks in general, but because at some point in there when medication is taking care of some but not all of the symptoms, I will inevitably have the irrational thought, “What if I’m never well again?”
I have a friend who broke her leg while skiing. She wanted to show us X-rays. I can’t look at them. Oddly, it occurred to me that if she had died while skiing and someone showed me a post-mortem X-ray that showed the broken leg, I would have been fine with that — because I would have known that she was not suffering at all.
(I would not have been fine with her dying. Thank you for not dying, Hil.)
When I have friends who are hospitalized, it is very tough for me to visit them because I don’t want to see them suffering, but I try to go anyway because maybe being there will help alleviate it a little bit.
Now here’s where a thought occurred to me the other day. I’m a writer, and I frequently write violent stories. Those stories often involve a lot of death.
But they almost never involve ongoing injury or illness.
And now, I’m going to say something a little difficult. Please bear with me; I don’t intend to shock with this statement, and one of the words is automatically shocking to many people.
I can write murder. I can’t write rape.
Murder victims — their suffering is over. Some — I would guess most — rape victims never really recover completely. Even the best recovery involves psychological scarring.
I can write torture — as long as the victim dies and the torture is over.
I can write about people surviving attacks, but I tend to completely gloss over the process of healing. (If you have read On the Devil’s Payroll, there’s a pretty good example of that. A couple major characters survive nasty attacks, and I never once bring up whether they spend the rest of their lives afraid to be alone, or triple-checking their security system, or talking to therapists about nightmares. I don’t like to deal with that stuff.)
I think, in some cases, it makes the writing less realistic, a tad less honest. But on the other hand, I read books as a form of escapism — where good is good and bad is bad and you make your choice, and if later it turns out good was actually bad, well, hooray for plot twists. I don’t write about people faced with ethical choices such as “do I do this minor dishonest task my boss wants me to do, knowing that it will barely make a ripple anywhere other than to threaten my integrity… or do I refuse on the grounds that I find it dishonest, and risk losing the income that supports my family?”
It might make a good story, but it’s more likely that it would make a decent prologue. The action would happen when the consequences were real — not like real life, where the consequences are usually that nothing happens and then the choice comes up again and again and again.
It’s part of the reason religions and politics like to set up a bad guy. We want things to be that simple. We prefer life and death over malingering illnesses. We like the stories where the bad guy is shot and killed, or put into prison for life where we can theoretically forget about him. We don’t like the stories where someone is diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder that will bother him for the rest of his life, but that he can treat with various medications and therapies… because it’s not cut-and-dried, and we can’t focus our attention on loving good and hating bad. We don’t even like to see the process of cleaning up after a major fight scene on TV. If we do see it, it’s supposed to be poignant and the mess is resolved by the next episode. We don’t see our hero four weeks later stepping on a previously unnoticed tiny shard of glass from the debris that battle created in their home, because we want that situation to be already healed.
And I think that’s what it all comes back to for me — the trouble with healing anything of significance is that it’s not simple. It takes time and effort, and it doesn’t run smoothly. There will be setbacks. There will be really, really bad days. There will be some people who never fully heal before something completely unrelated ends their suffering.
I haven’t decided exactly what all of this means, or if it’s all just a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Maybe the fact that I’m not sure how to end this post is kind of a symptom of the topic. I want it to end, to be resolved… but…?