Friday, September 27, 2013

Ghosts, the Living Dead, and Craving the Taste of Death Pt. II

Pt. II...Setting the Stage

Assuming the folks on television are correct, which is a pretty tough assumption to make, but assuming they are correct, how tough must it be to convince a ghost that they are dead and that they must move on?  I mean, how do you make that case?  Obviously, all the evidence is in your favor, but how do you convince someone or some “thing” of something that they are unwilling to see, believe, or to otherwise acknowledge?

You are dead.”

“Boo.”

As the lore, television, and the movies go, to attempt to convince a spectral interloper of their deceased nature is to invite their wrath and all sorts of shenanigans.

No, seriously, you are dead.”

BOO!”  A light bulb shatters in the background.

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Zombies, as fun as they are, suffer from numerous logical breakdowns.  I mean there is the big metaphysical question, how are they animated?  Obviously there is some base form of drive or intelligence because they are able to walk, to moan, in some cases even to cry out “Brains!”, they know to devour the living, and they display rudimentary pack behaviors.  So there’s something going on in there, but they’re dead.  It is one of the great mysteries of pop culture and zombies will drive you flat nuts if you think about it too long.  There’s just so many questions that are never adequately addressed.

Why are they so bent on eating the living?  In 1985’s “Return of the Living Dead” an explanation is given by a talking zombie (I would’ve included the clip, but there is some salty language) that they eat not people per se, but rather brains, because by implication (though it is never explained) something about living brains soothes the pain of being dead.

With the primary motivation of consuming the living, one also has to wonder, “Do zombies poop?”  I mean, all that flesh has to go somewhere and if they are truly dead, then there is no need for nourishment and therefore no need for digestion, which is good because dead tissue cannot digest anything.  Does what they consume just sit in the gut until they explode?  Does it just slide right on out since all the plumbing ought to go slack since they’re dead, which in turn causes one to have to question again, “Why are you eating the living?”  While fun, it’s all pretty illogical.

However, without getting too deep in “dissecting” zombies, what is standard is that they have an insatiable, irrational hunger for the living.  The animated, living dead have a one track mind and a singular purpose, to eat living flesh thereby destroying life.  Zombies don’t eat other zombies, but they will eat the recently dead.  Aside from the relatively intelligent zombies of “Return of the Living Dead”, they know not why; they only know that they must eat the living.

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The dead (living, apparitional, and otherwise) are irrational.

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One of the most perplexing, heartbreaking, and maddening things I’ve run into as a pastor/chaplain are those that simply want to die even when help is available.  I feel I must clarify at this point, that I am not talking about the suicidal, but rather the interesting phenomenon of significantly ill patients who should have a reasonable hope of some sort of recovery, with a decent quality of life, who refuse treatment or life saving measures.

I’ve seen this on a handful of occasions; people become so resolved to the idea of death, that they reject the possibility of life.  However, they not only reject the possibility of life, but they cling desperately to death.  And not only do they cling desperately to death, it often times seems that they want to pull everyone around them along for the ride.  Death for all of its darkness, fear, and unknown becomes a security blanket.  It’s almost as if they crave the taste of death.  Folks in this situation will kick, claw, bite and lash out should you attempt to come between them and death.  Sometimes death is safer than life.

Obviously in most of these cases there are deeper issues at play; depression, no basis of hope, and frankly, sometimes we just get tired of hurting or suffering.  Through my own experience, I can relate.  I mean after a decade of feeling like my arms were quite literally on a fire twenty four hours a day, I was ready to be done and was exhausted from suffering.  But in the majority of the cases that I’m thinking of as I am writing this, there was a reasonable expectation of the extension of life with an increase of quality.  I can remember thinking in all of these situations, with no shortage of empathy, “Getting better is sometimes scary and even painful; coming back to life can be terrifying.  Sometimes, it’s just easier to die.

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I know death well in its many guises.  I know how it craves and fears the living all at once.  I know death; I know there are fates far worse and far more terrifying than ghosts and shambling zombies…the living dead already amongst us.  Stay tuned for Pt. 3.


Thursday, September 26, 2013

Ghosts, the Living Dead, and Craving the Taste of Death



Part I : CredentialsThis is going to be a big one and maybe the most important piece I’ve put on the blog; or at least the most ambitious.  Bear with me, what might be perceived as disjointed in this piece is most assuredly going somewhere.

I’m going to outright lie to you with my next words…I sometimes wish that my taste in television, movies, and music was as discerning as my taste in literature.  Sounds good, a little redeeming perhaps; but it’s a lie.  I really don't mind my lack of taste or discernment in these arenas.  I just really couldn’t think of a better way to start what I have to say than to mention my complete and utter lack of sophistication when it comes to entertainment.  I’ll watch most anything depending on my mood.  I suppose such a cavalier attitude towards such things is somehow required to survive more than a few flicks of the channel up or channel down buttons on the remote.  But no, this is not a commentary on television and there is not some deeper theological meaning, at least that I’m wanting to explore at the moment.  I’m simply stating, rather, providing you my credentials for at least a part of this most important piece.

In today’s culture and clime, you cannot watch much television without coming across some paranormally or supernaturally fueled/centered program.  Ghost hunting, mediums, UFO’s; the list goes on and on.  Did you know Barnes and Noble has a section in their stores titled, “Paranormal Teen Romance”…I giggle a little bit every time I pass by it.  Partly because such a crazy notion exists, but mostly because to my recollection I’ve yet to see a teenager in that section.  No, it’s typically occupied by those much older that, oddly enough, you usually also see hovering around the “50 Shades” section.  But I digress, remember, I’m still credentialing.

I mention this because in the increasingly rare moments when I do have time to channel surf, I often find myself parked on one of the ghost hunting shows.  They’re really quite comical.  Grown men running through buildings with electronics screaming like a bunch of teenage girls; and frankly, I sort of find myself wanting to go along for the fun of it.  I live fifteen or so minutes from Waverly Hills Sanatorium…anyone up for an excursion!?!?  Seriously.

I’ve learned a lot from these shows.  Case(s) in point(s)…Did you know ghosts are fascinated with electronics?  And can manipulate them?  Did you that violent or unexpected deaths most often lead to hauntings?  That ghosts most often inhabit places that had special meaning to them?  Which in turn causes me to wonder why cemeteries are so often haunted.  There’s so many intrigues!!!  The reasons most often given for being a ghost?  They don’t know/accept that they’re dead.  Ooh, now we’re getting somewhere, but not yet.

Remember my lack of discernment and taste when it comes to entertainment?  I also unapologetically love zombie movies and television shows.  On this phenomenon I think I could make some pretty powerful theological statements, but I’m not really interested at the moment.  My current favorite?  The Walking Dead.  Great show.  A friend of mine recently preached a sermon using the show as a powerful illustration.  Me?  I’ve got figures of Rick, Daryl, and “Bicycle Girl” in my office.  Why?  I just like them.  You want to know one of the most frightening things about zombies?  They are unthinking, unknowing beings, simply fueled to destroy life.  You get bit by a zombie?  You join them.  Why?  Because they like you?  No.  They bit you because you are alive and they are dead.  In a way, I find zombies to be a decent model for Augustinian and Thomistic explanations of evil (privation of good)…but I digress.

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I feel like I’ve got a pretty powerful relationship with death.  In my first three years as a pastor I performed twenty-one funerals.  Now these weren’t just random people; in all but one case they were people that I had developed relationships with and feelings for.  They were my people, my friends, and my family.  For the vast majority of these folks, I was with them during the process of death, from the moment of finding out to the moment of death.  I always worried that I would become calloused or hardened to this, but I don’t think it is possible for me.

While I dread those phone calls and visits, I can also tell you that as a pastor, one of the greatest privileges is to accompany people on this journey.  Beyond the journey itself; the relationships that are built with the dying and families are incredibly powerful, precious, and I would even argue holy.  They just take place at a level and circumstances that are so far beyond the norm.

Twenty-one funerals in such a short period of time is certainly enough for anyone, but I’m not done.  During that time, I also completed my CPE (clinical pastoral education) at Norton/Kosair Children’s Hospital in Louisville Kentucky, where I dealt with more deaths than I care to remember.  As a matter of fact, my internship is the stuff of legend, but for reasons other than the sheer amount of death.  I’m pretty sure the Child Bereavement Coordinator still gets a nervous tick whenever he hears my name or learns that I’m returning to be on call.

I've dealt with so many child and infant deaths.  But once again, it wasn’t just the sheer numbers, but rather circumstance.  No child or infant death is easy, nor do they ever get easier, they are consistently brutal.  Most of what I have dealt with at Kosair has been extraordinary; very sudden, unexpected, and in one case, a violent deaths.  It is only through grace and experience that you get better at dealing with them but it never becomes routine or easy.  Back in April I was on call at the downtown hospital and I had three children actively dying at once; and that was the one time in any situation in my life that I really believe I could’ve walked away from my post without a second thought.  I actually, for a brief moment, seriously considered leaving and never coming back.

I do not mention these things for your sympathy; remember, we’re credentialing here.  I know death.  I know what its approach looks like, I know what it smells like, and I’ve gotten pretty good at allowing a hospital room tell me how close we are.  I recognize its subtleties.  I know its impact on the living.  I also know death well enough to know only a fool attempts to predict its arrival.  It comes on its terms and on its timing; sometimes with unexpected speed and sometimes it appears to be in no particular hurry at all.  However, what never changes, what is never negotiable, is the eventuality and finality of death.  It comes for us all.

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With the fear of romanticizing for the sake of artistry or at least impact, I think I can say with confidence and sincerity that my relationship with and view of death was deeply influenced by my decade long battle with a disease that I truly believed would take my life (if I didn’t beat it to the punch).  Death was something that was never far from my mind or frankly my body.  I planned my funeral.  I wrote letters to loved ones and friends.  I paid close attention to the changes in my body as well as its functions, as things slowed and stopped working as they should.  I was very mindful of the psychological, emotional, and spiritual changes along the way.  I knew/know what it is to slowly and methodically die.  I know what it is to go into a surgery confident in not waking up and being entirely okay with that.

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I know what it is to be given a second chance.  I know how frightening, as crazy as that sounds, second chances are.  I know how dangerous hope can be.  I know how utterly terrifying the prospect of life can be when death had been expected and accepted.  Through knowing death, I have a new appreciation not only for life, but the absolute power of life.  Through knowing death in the manner and degrees that I do, I have a new and profound appreciation of the power, beauty, and wonder of resurrection.

Part 2…A Closer Look at The Living Dead and Craving the Taste of Death…