What Does It Really Mean To Face Reality and Death?

In her work of creative nonfiction, For the Time Being (1999), Annie Dillard (b. 1945) writes the following:

There is now, living in New York City, a church-sanctioned hermit, Theresa Mancuso, who wrote recently, “The thing we desperately need is to face the way it is.” (19)

And how is it? The serial killer, Ted Bundy, thought he knew. His answer was that a single human’s existence (or nonexistence) obviously means nothing. Here’s Dillard again:

Ted Bundy, the serial killer, after his arrest, could not comprehend the fuss. What was the big deal? David von Drehle quotes an exasperated Bundy in Among the Lowest of the Dead: “I mean, there are so many people.” (21)

Dillard also quotes the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin with words to similar effect:

“One death is a tragedy: a million deaths are a statistic.”

Dillard then asks the following:

How can an individual count? Do individuals count only to us other suckers, who love and grieve like elephants, bless their hearts? […]

One small town’s soup kitchen, St. Mary’s, serves about 115 men a night. Why feed 115 individuals?

Why, indeed, in light of the human numbers? Here’s Dillard offering one of them for our contemplation:

On April 30, 1991—on that one day—138,000 people drowned in Bangladesh. At dinner I mentioned to our daughter, who was then seven years old, that it was hard to imagine 138,000 people drowning.

“No, it’s easy,” she said. “Lots and lots of dots, in blue water.”

As to human population, living and dead, Dillard writes this:

How are we doing in numbers, we who have been alive for this most recent verse of human life? How many people have lived and died?

“The dead outnumber the living,” Harvard’s Nathan Keyfitz wrote in a 1991 letter to Justin Kaplan. “Credible estimates of the number of people who have ever lived on earth run from 70 billion to over 100 billion.” Averaging those figures puts the total persons ever born at about 85 billion. By these moderate figures, the dead outnumber us (by now we have swelled to 5.9 billion) by about 14 to 1. None of these figures is certain, and Keyfitz wrote that the ratio “could be as high as 20 to 1.” The dead will always outnumber the living.

Dead Americans, however, if all proceeds, will not outnumber living Americans until the year 2030, because the nation is still young. Many of us will be among the dead then. Will we know or care, we who once owned the still bones under the quick ones, we who spin inside the planet with our heels in the air? The living might well seem foolishly self-important to us, and overexcited.

Since there are at least fourteen dead people for every one of us, we who are alive now make up about 6.8 percent of all people who have entered the world to date. […]

Half of all the dead are babies and children. So we could console ourselves with the distinction that once we adults die, we will be among the longest-boned dead, and among the dead who grew the most teeth, too—for what those distinctions might be worth among beings notoriously indifferent to appearance and all else.

In Juan Rulfo’s novel Pedro Paramo, a dead woman says to her dead son, “Just think about pleasant things, because we’re going to be buried for a long time.” (49-50)

Dillard’s ironic tone throughout her book is in keeping with these numbers, which would appear to cast a shadow of emptiness and futility over our lives—perhaps even giving us thoughts of suicide.

Or might such lemon-thoughts be turned into lemonade? The American novelist Walker Percy offers a surprising response to our redundancy and dispensability: why not live? Here’s Percy in his playful nonfiction book, Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book (1983, 77-78):

If you are serious about the choice [of suicide], certain consequences follow. Consider the alternatives. Suppose you elect suicide? Very well. You exit. Then what? What happens after you exit? Nothing much. Very little, indeed. After a ripple or two, the water closes over your head as if you had never existed. You are not indispensable after all. You are not even a black hole in the Cosmos. All that stress and anxiety was for nothing. Your fellow townsmen will have something to talk about for a few days. Your neighbors will profess shock and enjoy it. One or two might miss you, perhaps your family, who will also resent the disgrace. Your creditors will resent the inconvenience. Your lawyers will be pleased. Your psychiatrist will be displeased. The priest or minister or rabbi will say a few words over you and you will go on the green tapes and that’s the end of you. In a surprisingly short time, everyone is back in the rut of his own self as if you had never existed.

Now, in the light of this alternative, consider the other alternative. You can elect suicide, but you decide not to. What happens? All at once, you are dispensed. Why not live, instead of dying? You are free to do so. You are like a prisoner released from the cell of his life. You notice that the door to the cell is ajar and that the sun is shining outside. Why not take a walk down the street? Where you might have been dead, you are alive. The sun is shining.

Suddenly you feel like a castaway on an island. You can’t believe your good fortune. You feel for broken bones. You are in one piece, soul survivor of a foundered ship whose captain and crew had worried themselves into a fatal funk. And here you are, cast up on a beach and taken in by islanders, who it turns out, are worried sick—over what? Over status, saving face, self esteem, national rivalries, boredom, anxiety, depression from which they seek relief mainly in wars and the natural catastrophes which regularly overtake their neighbors. . . .

The consequences of entertainable suicide? Lying on the beach, you are free for the first time in your life to pick up a coquina and look at it. You are even free to go home and, like the man from Chicago, dance with your wife.

The difference between a non-suicide and an ex-suicide leaving the house for work, at eight o’clock on an ordinary morning:

The non-suicide is a little travelling suck of care, sucking care with him from the past and being sucked toward care in the future. His breath is high in his chest.

The ex-suicide opens his front door, sits down on the steps, and laughs. Since he has the option of being dead, he has nothing to lose by being alive. It is good to be alive. He goes to work because he knows he doesn’t have to.

Walker Percy died in 1990. Global population figures passed 7 billion in 2012. Annie Dillard, at the time of this writing, is still alive.

Resources:

  • Dillard, Annie. For the Time Being (Knopf 1999).
  • Percy, Walker. Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux 1983).

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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