The Misplaced Love of the Dead
We can be said to have a future as long as we are unaware that we have no future – Gadamer
All those who yet live must accept both the happenstance of their birth and the necessity of their death. Though we are not born to die, but rather to live, living is an experience which is very much in the meanwhile, for the time being, in the interim, even of the moment, pending global context and possible crisis. We neither ask to be born nor do we ask to die, as Gadamer has also reminded us. And beyond this, these are the truer existential conditions which connect us with all other human beings, not only our living contemporaries, but also the twice honoured dead. Birth and death overtake all cultural barriers, and thence undertake to be the furtive guides which travel alongside us during that wondrous but also treacherous intermission between inexistences.
It is a function of the basic will to life that generates both the shadow of ressentiment, especially towards youth, as well as the orison of immortality as an ideal and now, more and more a material goal. Indefinite life, a more modest version of the same will, is nonetheless radical to the species-essential experience of coming to understand human finitude. It is not enough to comprehend finiteness, as with the limits of bodily organicity, including the gradual breakdown of the brain. Because we humans are gifted with the evolutionary Gestalt of a consciousness beyond mere sentience and instinct, forward-looking and running along ahead of itself in spite of knowing its general end, we have to come to grips, and then to terms, with a more subtle wisdom; that of the process of completion.
Dasein is completed in mine ownmost death. Heidegger’s existential phenomenology is clearly also an ethics, and a profound one, and if it is somewhat shy of the conception of the other, as Buber has duly noted, it is not quite fair to say on top of this, that it is also at risk for fraud regarding death, as Schutz declared. Such ‘phoniness’, as reported by Natanson, might be felt only insofar that death is in fact the least of our living worries, especially in the day to day. Poverty, illness, alienation, loneliness, victimization, illiteracy, hunger, all these and others authentically occupy our otiose rounds and do not, in their feared instanciation, immediately prompt us to meditate upon the much vaunted ‘existential anxiety’. Rather they compel us to act in defence of life, our own and perhaps that of others as well. So it is also part of the will to life that we truly fear such umbrous outcomes and it is commonplace to second-guess many of the decisions we thus make in our personal lives with the sole purpose of maintaining an humane equilibrium.
But what if this balancing act breaks apart, even for a moment? For eight young women in Toronto, possessed of only the beginnings of self-understanding and equipped with none of the perspective that only living on for perhaps decades more begrudgingly bequeaths to any of us, the fragile balance of common humanity, the ounce of compassion for every weighty pound of passion, the spiritual eagle who pecks at our conscience rather than our liver, fell away. The result was the death of a much older man, needless and therefore almost evil in its import. No matter the intent, no matter the force, no matter the loyalty nor the rage, neither the desperation nor the anxiety, none of these things can vouchsafe such an act. Even so, for the rest of us, we must be most alert to not feeling so much love for the dead that we forget what the living yet require of us. That one is dead must be recognized as not even tragic, for there was no noble drama being played out. It was rather an absurdity, an intrusion upon not only civility but also upon human reason itself. That eight live on, now to be shipwrecked for a time on a hardpan atoll of their own making, is in fact where the call to conscience next originates.
These young women clearly need our help and guidance if they are to honour the death of the one who was denied the remainder of his own challenging life. This is a far wider point for any who live in the midst of a history which is at once my own but as well so abstracted and distanciated from me that I am regularly compelled to relinquish any direct control over events or even of the knowledge of the human journey emanating from just yesterday, let alone of remote antiquity. I have no doubt that for all eight, real remorse mixed with a sullen distemper is disallowing sleep. For even if ‘the murderer sleeps’, as Whitman reminded us, the character of her sleep is not quite the same as is our own. It is thus the burden which falls upon the rest of us to help the newly-made pariah back into the human fold, for it was her original alienation from that succor which was the root cause of her vacant evil.
In doing so, we must also remind ourselves that on the one hand, such a death could have been my own, but yet more importantly, and on the other, that I too might have killed if I had been in similar circumstances, young and enraged, desperate and anxious, alienated but in utter ignorance of the worldly forces which are the sources of my stunned and stunted condition. And in the meanwhile my wealthy peers attend yet Blytonesque private schools and though they look like me and consume the same popular culture as me and are fetishized alike by adults whose leers I must endure each day, they might as well be of a different species entire. And all the more so now that I have killed.
Would not the parents of the privileged also kill to defend their lots? Would I, speaking now in my real self, not kill to protect my family? What is the threshold of the needless? Where do we make our stand and state with always too much unction that this death was justified and this one was not? Why would someone attack my family? Why would someone offend privilege? Why would eight young women attack an utter stranger? For the living, upon whom our love both depends and is called forth daily, this is the time to ask the deeper questions whose responses shall expose our shared and social contradictions. For the misplaced love of the dead serves ultimately only the self-interest of those who are content with the world of the living insofar as it continues to privilege they and them alone. The misplaced hatred of the others, including these eight young people, serves only as a decoy for our self-hatred and self-doubt, charged with the background radiation which is the simmering knowing that we have strayed so far from our ideals that such dark acts are not only possible but have indeed occurred.
The only way to prevent their recurrence is to work actively for a just society, an ennobled culture, a compassionate individual, a responsible State. Those who need our love in the highest sense of the term are those who have acted in a manner that shows that they are themselves outside of human love. That each of us may descend to such inhumanity must remain the patent frame in which the love we proffer to all those affected by this event is rendered. Do not love the dead, do not hate the living. I will be the one but I am yet the other. I do not stand with the victim for he now stands beyond all human ken. Rather, however uncomfortably and even ironically, I must stand with the criminals, because they are faced with the same challenges as am I myself; to regain each day the highest expression of the will to life in spite of any descent the past has conferred upon us.
G.V. Loewen is the author of fifty-five books in ethics, education, health and social theory. He has worked with alienated youth for three years and for a quarter century before taught thousands of young people through transformative and experiential learning. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades in both Canada and the USA. He may be reached at email@example.com