"It's interesting that most nurses and doctors spend more time saving people's lives than those people actually spend living them."
-Dave Fanning, Academy 23.
The slogan "You Could Be Dead Tomorrow" came to me in early 1992 and has been a source of endless problems and insight ever since. most people I've mentioned it to have had an instant emotional emotional reaction to it that has been almost exclusively negative or uncomprehending. This is one of the reasons I've continued to use it - it differs from other slogans a great deal. You either agree or disagree with political slogans, you simply absorb advertising slogans and you probably don't have the faintest idea what to do with avant-garde art slogans (or is that just me?).
When I've introduced the above phrase into a conversation there have been one of four basic reactions:
1. "Bummer, man - why do you have to be so negative?" Don't you just hate hippies? Particularly born-again ones who think that listening to a couple of Hendrix CD's and smoking industrial quantities of cannabis will somehow "enlighten" them. The philosophy that everything negative is 'bad' usually appeals to people who have very comfortable, "positive" lives. If you are reasonably wealthy and/or out of your head most of the time, death may burst your little cosmic bubble. That's the trouble with living life out of balance. Perhaps focusing on death is negative, but to deny death is to ultimately deny yourself the chance to really live. The negative makes the positive more intense.
2. "I know all about death. I wear black clothes. I have books about serial killers." Ooo-er. The other side of the coin from hippydom. The fetishisation of death is increasingly popular amongst various "alternative" subcultures. And why not? All that black and red with a nice gothic typeface looks quite sweet. Unfortunately, the glamourisation of death inevitably ends up turning it into a product. The death you can buy shares in isn't the death we're examining here. Commercial death is the sanitised version you get on the 'A-Team'. People simply fall over when they get shot and the camera pans in another direction. BANG. A military installation explodes. Cut to scene of attractive kidnapped daughter reunited with her smiling family. Reality isn't like that. But then there's not much entertainment value in people with limbs missing running, screaming, down burning streets, is there? You wouldn't get MacDonald's advertising in the commercial breaks then, would you? (1). It is impossible to dwell on the negative constantly without going mad or trivialising it.
3. Type 3 respondents consider it a threat against them personally and either laugh nervously or flee the scene screaming. Maybe it's just because I'm tall, or something. Some people just take everything way too literally.
4. The last set think it's funny, which it sort of is, but not the way they think (heh heh). This is like the Xmas cracker company that thought it would be educational to put famous quotes in their product instead of the usual facile attempts at humour. Problem was, all the kids expected jokes and so ended up reading segments from speeches by George Washington, laughing hysterically.(2). Death is usually only funny when it's:
a) Someone else's
b) A bit bizarre
c) Mediated by the media
Like Tom and Jerry or Fatty Arbuckle. Actually there are some interesting psychology studies on why people make sick jokes after disasters like Zeebrugge.(3). It emerges that it's a process that distances people from feelings of loss or grief. Or: another way of avoiding coming to terms with mortality and the black joke that the end is unforseeable.
I suppose you're thinking this is pretty obvious, and it is. We all know we're going to die, don't we? But do we actually spend a little time, every day, to stop and think about it? Here's an exercise:
Ok, visualise: It's a beautiful spring evening and you're just off down the pub/club/masonic lodge. It's getting a little late so you're hurrying along. So is the guy in the Sierra and he's already been down the pub all afternoon. You meet in the middle of the road. You cease to exist.
i. If this was going to happen next Friday for sure (with no way of avoiding it by staying in, etc.) what would you do between now and then? Who would you speak to and what would you say to them? What would you do with what money you have? And why haven't you done any of these things before now? Make a list.
ii. You know this event will occur in two years time. Same questions as above.
It's obviously very difficult to simulate an unlikely event like that. However, the point is that very few people consider that incidents similar to this happen every day without the benefit of foresight. Statistically it could happen to any of us - tomorrow. Are you doing exactly what you want to do? Why not?
Death is the end. Unless you're a christian or a Buddhist, in which case death is the start of the best party ever, or the chance to turn into a lizard, or something. But even that's just speculation. Nobody knows for sure, even the few that have got half way there, seen a long tunnel and some bright white light and then come back.(4). If nobody knows for sure, it's probably best to just assume the most likely outcome, which is that we'll all be feeding the worms in a hundred years and that's a generous estimate. (5).
So, in your guts you know you're going to die and that's it, right? You leave the cinema and some goddamn worm is tucking in his napkin. What do you do about it?
People react differently to death. For simplicity I'll draw a nice parallel between everyday folk and people who know they have a fatal disease.(6).
1. People who have just been told they have a fatal illness simply use DENIAL . "It isn't going to happen and if it is I want a second opinion". And quite right, too. You can't trust doctors these days: they WANT you to be ill. In everyday life people deny the fact of death all the time. There are whole industries geared towards it. Plastic Surgery, anyone? (Well, your cheekbones might last a thousand years, but you certainly won't.) That's why the IMAGE of youth is so important in advertising. Nostalgia is an attempt to relive youth. Literally turning your back on death.
2. After the denial stage comes ANGER. Particularly in the young. "Why me? I've got so much to live for....". And the feeling of life passing you by makes you angry regardless of your health. Life can be dull. You've got just about enough money to live on, but you feel bored. Alienated. You know that unless things really change you're going to die without doing any of the things that you really want to. You take it out on people below you at work, your family, friends, cat.
3. Anger is followed by BARGAINING in our patient's life. They get religion. Start praying for an extension. Suddenly do good deeds for everyone so God will let them get to heaven, or at least see another christmas. Or they give all their money to charity and donate their body to science. Of course, one of the essential attractions of religions like christianity is that if you follow some simple rules, you will transcend death. It is bargaining taken to its logical conclusion. (This has lead to some very sassy sects that reckoned committing all the sins and then repenting on their death beds would get them closer to God.) This ideology is also an excuse for not living you life to the full. After all, it's only a warm up for the raptures of heaven. Or is that Satan trying to tempt you away from the path of righteousness? Bargaining is a diversion. And you always get stiffed on the deal anyway.
4. The stage of DEPRESSION is pretty obvious. I mean, it's the end. Of everything. There is nothing more depressing than this. Nothing can be said to people with critical diseases at point. ("Things aren't so bad"? ,"Well at least you've still got your health/me/your GameBoy"?) The primary way people deal with depression about their eventual demise is to kill time. Just get out of it to forget what's coming. Drugs are great for this, especially downers like dope, heroin, alcohol and television. You can involve yourself with other people's lives in Soap Operas instead of ruling your own. You can sleep the day away with booze or smack and still never have any vivid dreams. Of course, the irony of all this is that the methods people use to avoid thinking about death actually bring them closer to it. "Why kill time, when you can kill yourself?" as a wise old sage once said.
5. The final stage is ACCEPTANCE, though not everyone reaches it. Some people are still looking for a second opinion, or a third opinion, or ANY OPINION THAT'S THEIR OPINION when they pass away. Patients who do reach this stage have a peace about them. They talk little. They are neither angry, nor depressed. An enlightened, Zen quality. All their fears released, all their contradictions forgotten.
I'm still not sure if it's possible to approximate this state in everyday life, although I've been there fleetingly. What I do know is that death is the end and failure to realise this enslaves us. We must strive to examine it, without wallowing, in order to really live. And that's where the real problems start. I know that I still have all five stages floating around my brain to some extent. And I know that exorcising them is one of the most important things for me to do in the short period of time left.(7). There are more interesting and important things to do than plod on like a zombie. I think it can be a very positive slogan, liberating even. And you COULD be dead tomorrow. So get on with it!
(1): Weirdly there were no adverts during some of the programmes in Channel 4's "Banned Season", notably the gruelling "Animals Film" - interesting, eh?
(2): This really did happen with some children my sister was looking after a few years ago.
(3): But I don't know any dates for studies, so you'll have to just sneak into your local college and see if they've got anything on the "Psychology of humour" - nip into their bar and grab a cheap pint while you're there.
(4): We're talking Near Death Experiences, of course. For more info see our 'Signs Ov Life' tape. According to a recent Oprah Winfrey show it is now possible to induce N.D.E's in the laboratory. All the subjects have been transformed for the better. Any more information appreciated.
(5): I don't go for Robert Anton Wilson and the Longevity freaks' obsession with immortality. In all medical advances some people have got better and some people haven't. 80 years of focused activity is better than 800 years of necrophobic stasis. An extension would be nice, but when you've gotta go, you've gotta go. Certainly there's no point in being immortal here. If we leave our bodies behind and get into space, well that's another story.
(6): Study by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross (1970) "On Death and Dying", probably published by Macimillan, but I only have a photocopy. Any more up to date studies (especially relating to A.I.D.S./H.I.V.) would be more than welcome.
(7): Except perhaps anger, which can act as a spur to do something positive. Anger is like archery - you have to choose the right target and know when to let go.