Saturday, January 19, 2013

"Knowing death leads to reverence for life" by Charles L. Bridwell

It occurred to me that today's youngsters are so insulated from death that they don't comprehend its finality, its coldness, or its permanence. Yet, they are exposed to "make-believe" death at every turn on television and in movies. They're only getting half the picture; and only the "fantasy" part, at that.

Arnold Schwarzenegger argued yesterday that violent movies (for which he is famous) are not a cause of real-life gun violence. He said, "We have to separate out what is in the movies – which is pure entertainment – and what is out there in reality." Millions play "shoot-'em-up" video games and watch violent movies, but the vast majority of them don't grab a gun and kill people. They seem to fluidly move between reality and fantasy. So, even if movies and games have some detrimental influence on the mind of youths, there must be other causes.

Surely, those who kill innocent people are not lucid. Most are probably mentally ill to some degree. Perhaps the prescription drugs youngsters are given so frequently are a factor, too. But, I have to wonder if some are really disillusioned about the reality of death, based on a "fantasy" perception.

Many have never actually seen a dead human body. Some have never attended a funeral. Most have not lost siblings or parents to death. And while we wouldn't wish that on them, death is a natural part of living. In simpler times death was real, close, and sometimes suffocating. The dead were cleaned up and prepared for burial by friends and neighbors, often on the kitchen table. A wake was held in the home, followed shortly thereafter by a funeral. With no embalming or refrigeration, the smell of death was experienced and remembered. Youngsters may not have helped with preparations, but they were doubtless aware of death's realities.

Americans once raised, killed and prepared their own animals for food, and the kids saw it, or even participated. Many a lad was sent out to kill a chicken for a meal, under orders from his mother. They raised calves, lambs or pigs that were considered pets, and then later slaughtered. They understood that animals die to provide meat. Today's youngsters see meat in sterile, plastic-wrapped packages, and may be oblivious as to whether it came from a cow, hog, or chicken.

Those who hunt comprehend their impact on their prey. What hunter hasn't simultaneously felt exhilaration and a twinge of remorse when he made a good shot, then watched his quarry gasp its last breath to become his food? Only a thoughtless slob kills without feeling. Hunters aren't blood-thirsty, but the prey must die to be eaten. Ethical hunters usually develop a deep reverence for all life; both human and animal. Young hunters, at first thrilled by the chase, later mature into stewards and protectors of wildlife; and they contribute the majority of funds for wildlife conservation.

Native Americans lived close to the land, and often prayed before their hunts. They offered thanks to the deer, buffalo, duck, or fish for giving up its life so they might eat. In many ways, they were more spiritual than some "civilized" people. They were certainly more in-tune with the real "circle of life" so erroneously portrayed in movies like Bambi or The Lion King. Their lives were rooted in one reality; hunt or starve.

Is it possible that exposure to the death of humans and animals creates a reverence for life? I submit that it does. I grew up on a farm, helped butcher livestock, and have been a lifelong hunter. Yet, I have a deep love for wildlife, a reverence for their existence, and a desire to conserve and nurture them. I, too, have sought the blessings of the Creator before a hunt, and whispered my thanks to a dying animal for giving its life to become my sustenance. It's an enigma, but I've also cried unashamedly at the death of pet, and while holding the hand of a beloved relative on their death bed.

A rural upbringing also included a healthy exposure to birth, the springing forth of life with all its splendor, gore, and awe. Any birth is miraculous, whether it's an animal, bird, fish, or human. No witnesses remains unchanged; untouched by the miracle they beheld. The husband who attends his wife during birth empathizes with her near-death experience, and treasures the memory of welcoming his children into the light.

We can't all have a pastoral existence; nor will we likely raise and kill our own livestock, or actually depend on hunting for food. We probably won't be preparing our dead for burial. We may not all witness a birth. But I, for one, believe those events engender a deeper understanding of death, from which can spring a deep, lasting, and realistic reverence for life.

It might be illuminating to study mass shooters, to scrutinize their influences and experiences, their homes and families, and what drugs they were prescribed. Did they believe in God, or in right and wrong? Were they abused, neglected, or ignored? We might not unearth their penchant for death, but perhaps we could gain an insight into their unfeeling, deliberate, and horrible disregard for life.

*** * This article may be freely distributed, quoted, or reproduced with proper credit. clb

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