Mentioning Death in Polite Company

“Я прошу вас встать и минутой молчания почтить память погибших…” “I ask that you stand for a moment of silence in memory of the victims,” Vladimir Putin remarked – referring to a recent military accident in the south of Russia – as he began an unrelated speech, in 2012, on a national day of mourning in the days following the tragedy [1]. The vocal solemnity was perhaps uncharacteristic of Mr. Putin, who once announced in a televised interview, for example, “I would prefer not to discuss that subject [of religion] in detail… There are things which one must hold within himself.” [2]

And though Barack Obama introduced his comments on the Trayvon Martin ruling, in July of 2013, rather conventionally – “I send my thoughts and prayers, as well as Michelle’s, to the family of Trayvon Martin,” he began – our president, too, soon became serious. “Trayvon Martin could have been me, thirty-five years ago,” Obama said. Pausing, he added, “There are very few African Americans who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street, and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars.” [3]

These apparently disparate subjects – a national tragedy, on the one hand, and a painful history of racial distrust, on the other – will prove to share something peculiar in common. This something will be our object of study.

The Zach Brown Band interrupts the waltzing pace of its country staple “Chicken Fried”, three-quarters of the way through, to deliver a slower, heartfelt dedication to “the stars and stripes… the ones that gave their lives… so we don’t have to sacrifice all the things we love.” When Johns Hopkins president Ronald J. Daniels responded, last month, to the recent Baltimore riots, after first condemning the violence, Daniels ultimately confessed “the frustration felt in communities across this country, born of continuing racial disparities.” [4] Families sometimes, before beginning dinner, offer a grace or a prayer.

What do these have in common? Most obviously, each interrupts the proceedings of some regular, or expected, process in order to recognize and acknowledge larger, presiding phenomena. These presiding phenomena themselves, furthermore, share important aspects in common. Each emphasizes some sense in which we – who occupy the regular event – are guilty, indebted, or fortunate, as well as some sense in which others – the objects of tribute – have undergone comparative suffering, sorrow, or sacrifice.

These interruptions emphasize the discrepancies between our and others’ indebtedness.

A few broad classes of examples

National patriotism makes an amusing first case study. Tributes to the sacrifices of fallen soldiers serve (and this will prove typical) to remind us of the extent to which we have benefited from the disproportionate service of others. Soldiers served, suffered, and died, so that we can live, and continue to live, in safety.

Patriotism is perhaps the coarsest among the flavors of solemn invocation, in that it takes a side. It’s typically invoked by people (such as Putin) and in situations (like a folksy country song) not traditionally characterized by gravity. It’s something we can all agree on. But is the war actually just? Are we all doomed failures? These questions should not be asked. Patriotism leaves the darker depths of humanity unplumbed.

The example of social inequity is highly instructive. When we discuss the extent to which certain groups in our country and around the world have been hindered, by factors external to them, such as poverty, discrimination, or circumstances of birth, from living full and productive lives, we expose ourselves to a similar family of feelings of sorrow, debt, and gratitude.

The effects of drawing attention to systemic disparities are profound. They include feelings of connection with the universal suffering of humanity, with its sorrow, and its resilience. These feelings can surpass expected boundaries.

Most explicit of all are the religious tributes paid, in church services, school prayers, and meal blessings, to divinity, and particularly to Jesus Christ, by whom those who feel that they have sinned might become convinced of their redemption. Grace – defined in Christianity as the free and undeserved salvation given by God – is the decisive actor: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God.” (Ephesians 2:8) [5] These prayers serve to highlight the role in our lives of grace, the hallmark of gratitude and debt.

These are all examples of the same phenomenon. We can call it tribute.

What are the consequences of exposure to tribute?

Now that we’ve explored examples of tribute, we can more precisely investigate its effects. They are peculiar indeed.

Consequence 1: The feeling of religious sympathy

For one, tribute induces emotion, and of a particular sort. This sort of emotion is perhaps best conveyed by example. I’ll introduce examples – one from each of the above classes – that share a distinctive common theme (you’ll surely pick up on this bias). Examples within a vast variety of other topics exist, and I encourage you to consider your own.

Tribute through patriotism can be as effective in inducing emotion as any. I get emotional, for instance, contemplating of the Russian role in victory in World War II. After enduring millions of deaths at the hands of starvation and hypothermia during the heroic siege of Leningrad, the Russians finally mounted a triumphant march westward, ending in the victorious descent upon Berlin by united Russian, American, and British forces in 1945. Total Soviet military casualties exceeded 35 million. The 322nd Rifle Division of the Red Army liberated Auschwitz on January 27, 1944.

For tribute to the disadvantaged, we might consider the Russian youth born into cities like Novokuznetsk, in southern Russia, with crumbling, decaying infrastructure and heroin addiction rates as high as twenty percent. In the excellent Vice documentary Krokodyl: Russia’s Deadliest Drug, we witness drug-addicted teenagers living in an abandoned Soviet apartment block. “We use Dimedrol so we don’t throw up,” one of them says. They soon inject heroin. “I am going to die in a week,” says another. An organization called Regenerate Russia offers assistance to drug addicts in Novokuznetsk. [6]

As for religious tribute, examples abound. Continuing the theme of Russia, we may recall Raskolnikov’s redemption near the end of Crime and Punishment. (Spoiler alert throughout the remainder of this paragraph.) “The second week after Easter had come. There were warm bright spring days; in the prison ward the grating windows under which the sentinel paced were opened.” These words usher in the beginning of a remarkable passage that details Raskolnikov’s transformation in prison. “But that is the beginning of a new story—the story of the gradual renewal of a man, the story of his gradual regeneration,” writes Dostoevsky. “[B]ut our present story is ended.” [7]

I can think of no better name for this common emotion than religious sympathy.

Consequence 2: The feeling of soft sadness

Does tribute have a dark side? Tribute does fix our attention squarely upon the suffering of the world, whether military, social, or religious.

It’s perhaps no coincidence that Nietzsche – say, in Thus Spoke Zarathustra – refers to Christians derisively as “preachers of death” [8]. Nietzsche rejects the Christian fixation on suffering. “Hardly are they born,” Nietzsche writes, “when they begin to die, and long for doctrines of weariness and renunciation.” His wit runs strong: “They would rather be dead,” he says, “and we should approve of their wish!” [8] Nietzsche’s criticisms have a ring of truth.

What’s the effect of mentioning tribute in a public setting? No matter its form – we’ve already mentioned many – its effect, in a distinct, subtle sense, is to bring the focus of the gathering to death. The gathering becomes solemn. People become very aware. They become more sensitive, to their problems, and also to each other. They become slightly sadder.

I argue, Nietzsche’s claims aside, that this subtle sadness, or soft sadness, has an important place in our lives. It’s important for us to contemplate tributes regularly, to broaden our minds to encompass all of the distress, suffering, and pain that we can, and to connect with it. “I did not bow down to you, I bowed down to all the suffering of humanity,” [7] Raskolnikov famously said.

The result will be to make us more mature, more soft-spoken, and more kind. C. S. Lewis writes in Mere Christianity, of his so-called New Men, “Every now and then one meets them. Their very voices and faces are different from ours; stronger, quieter, happier, more radiant… In that sense our real selves are all waiting for us.” [9]

References

  1. Putin: Россия в меняющемся мире (Russia in a changing world)
  2. Putin on his religious faith
  3. Barack Obama on the Trayvon Martin ruling
  4. Johns Hopkins president Ronald J. Daniels on the Baltimore unrest
  5. Ephesians 2:8
  6. Vice’s Krokodyl: Russia’s Deadliest Drug
  7. Dostoevsky: Crime and Punishment
  8. Nietzsche: Thus Spoke Zarathustra
  9. C. S. Lewis: Mere Christianity
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