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The other day on a long walk I came upon a dead deer lying across the sidewalk that must have been recently hit by a car. The animal was lying stretched out, as is always the case for some reason, head and neck arched back with one big brown eye looking up innocently at anyone who came upon it. There is a sadness in the look of a dead deer, even when the death comes at your hands. Despite this reality, millions of deer hunters are preparing for the coming season.
On my way back I saw a couple of older boys, maybe even their late teens, looking at the animal from a distance. They took turns taking pics of each other in front of it, always from a safe distance, as if they thought the animal would roar back to life and attack them for some reason. Even at a distance, it was clear it disturbed them. As I approached, they warned me that there was a dead deer in my path, which suggested this was a novel experience for them.
A few moments of banter between us confirmed that they had never seen a dead animal this close. At first that seemed unbelievable, but they probably spend most of their days inside playing games or in controlled experiments we call school, so the odds of seeing anything in nature are low. At that age, their experience with death is their character dying in a video game. There are no sad lifeless eyes looking up at them in whatever game is popular at the moment.
Of course, there is no youth hunting to speak of in the built-up areas, so it is unlikely those two young men will experience death that way. In the United States only about five percent of young people hunt. The numbers around urban areas on the coasts are probably so small that it cannot be measured. There are more males under the age of sixteen who identify as trans now than those who hunt. Those two young men are less disturbed by crossdressing than they are by death.
Much of what we call progress in the last three centuries has been about insulating ourselves from the reality of the human condition, especially death. Few people know where food comes from or how it is possible. There is a growing sense among the urbanized populations that what they call meat is a crime against Gaia, in the same way that your car is an offense to the mother goddess. Fake meat exists to exploit this growing unawareness of the cycle of life.
We are not far from the point in science fiction where humans who reach their expiration date mysteriously disappear, sent off to the recycling plant. One day Uncle Bob is struggling up the stairs and the next day no one talks about Uncle Bob. He was picked up and loaded into a wagon overnight. Rich people are racing to find the magic elixir that will let them avoid death or at least stay young until the end, because progress means reaching a point when we overcome death.
There is a good chance that the present lunacy is made possible by the apparent insulation so many feel from the reality of the human condition. In a world where the consequences of flouting nature are brutal and personal, one must respect the reality of the human condition and pass that respect onto the next generation. The man with a son makes sure his son learns the reality of death at a young age, usually by having his son take the life of an animal hunting or farming.
In an age where life and death are abstract concepts, there is no need to think about it, much less talk about it with the next generation. This removes the essential element for understanding the arc of life, especially the arc of your life. When you see every day that all living things have an end, often a brutal end, you can understand that life is a beginning, middle and end. Since the middle part is the only bit you can control, you never lose sight of it as it is how you will be judged in the end.
Death has another value that we have lost. It is the thing that binds people together in the common struggle of life. When every man is aware of the death sentence that was issued to him at birth, he is keenly aware of the death sentence that hangs over his family, his neighbors, and his community. Just as he must struggle every day to reach that predetermined end point, he must struggle with his family and neighbors in order to give the next generation the chance for their struggle.
For most of human existence, the answer to the great question – who are we? – was answered every week at a funeral or execution. That last bit is something lost to the mists of time, but it was an essential element of social life. The punishment of the guilty was part of the glue that held society together. The condemned was not just hurried away like Uncle Bob but brought before his neighbors to be expelled from the life of society in the most extreme way possible.
The public execution had another value. As Joseph de Maistre observed, the executioner absolves the condemned man of his sins and sends him out of this life as an innocent man. At the moment of death, the price is paid and at that second, he moves from guilty to innocent. His last gasp takes all of his sins with him. It is not the executioner who has absolved the condemned. The executioner is the agent, the tool through which the community acts to cleanse itself of sin.
In this way, familiarity with death brings familiarity with life and sin. The former comes easy, but the latter must be relearned almost daily. When life, your life, has a clear end and that end can come in a variety of ways, those ways provide a different sense of purpose to each life. The purpose of the man swinging from a rope is different from the man dying to defend his people. Death provides clarity about purpose and therefore clarity about the crimes against that purpose.
All of this is lost in the modern age. Few young men will ever hold in their hands the still warm, but lifeless body of an animal. They will never see the executioner perform his duty to his people. Death is an abstraction. The closest people get to it is through the unreality of the digital world. In that realm, death is a problem to be overcome, while in the physical world it is a thing that no longer exists, because it is just assumed that one day, before your last day, death will be overcome.
In a world of that sort of certainty, there is no reason to think about the purpose of life or the crimes one should avoid committing against that purpose. In a world full of people with no purpose other than momentary pleasure, the society in which they operate must be a sterile playground. Anything with meaning must be stripped away as it could lead to unpleasant thoughts about the lack of meaning and purpose. To defeat death, we must first defeat any notion that there is a meaning to life.
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