Faces of Death: Halloween to coffee, we’re obsessed

By Christian Piatt

            This Halloween was the first time my son, Mattias, truly enjoyed all of the excitement available. He insisted on dressing up as Dash from the movie, The Incredibles. I swallowed my disdain for children acting as walking media billboards and conceded. It made him happy, after all.

            I noticed that, the older the kids got, the gorier and more frightening their costumes became. Pumpkins and superheroes gave way to horror movie icons, dismembered zombies and other mavens of mayhem.

It’s all a thin façade. Even in moments when I feared Mattias would be scared by the ghouls, he plopped a handful of candy into their bag and proclaimed, “You’re not scary. You’re a nice monster.”

Across the city, there a are symbols of our morbid fascination with death.  Even in the front yard of Mattias’ day care center, they have mock graves, mounded up with fresh dirt, complete with skeletal hands, reaching for unsuspecting prey. Cartoon ghosts, makeshift graveyards and haunted houses reveal that we’re terrified of death, yet we have no idea how to talk about it.

Recently, I listened to the testimony of a cancer survivor who had undergone extensive chemotherapy. The most frequent question she received during her treatment had to do with her hair loss. Few had the nerve to ask about her physical suffering, he fears, the risk to her life, or even the more violent side-effects of the poison they pumped through her veins to annihilate the tumors.

After all, when your fighting for your life, she suggests, isn’t your cosmetic appearance a little farther down on the list?

An article on the anatomy of the human taste bud in The New Yorker explains what takes place in our brains when we experience flavors. Our gustatory system actually is a critical survival mechanism, attuned to telling us what is safe to eat and what is toxic. Those things that are sweet, savory and salty generally include nutrients our bodies crave.

Spicy and bitter foods, however, send immediate warnings to the brain that we may be ingesting something that can harm or kill us. The resultant chemical response is a rush of endorphins, similar to a “fight or flight” experience.

Though the initial prompt is to respond quickly – in this case, spit out the offending morsel – the following endorphin effect is quite pleasurable. This causes us ironically to crave spicy or bitter food, along with other adventurous and life-threatening activities.

We can even get a voyeuristic thrill out of watching others risk life and limb. If this wasn’t the case, the new “Jackass” movie that features sophomoric acts of self-abuse would not have grossed nearly $70 million.

We spend billions of dollars celebrating a holiday that glorifies death, and we flock to movies where alligators snip at the genitalia of deviants. We even crave the bitter nectar of our morning coffee, sipping our “cup of death” so-described by The New Yorker article, just to help us feel ironically more alive.  The caffeine doesn’t hurt either.

As innately mortal creatures, we long to understand our end in its many expressions. We make jokes about it, scare ourselves in safe doses and take curious pleasure in the suffering of others: as long as it’s not too real. The moment the shadow of death looms too closely, we retreat into a paralytic state. We avoid even saying the “D” word.

Churches often capitalize on this collective neurosis to make the transcendence of death the cornerstone of their ministry. Who hasn’t been approached with the age-old question, “if you died today, do you know where you would go?” The answer for all of us is “no,” and that’s scary.

We believe a number of things, but knowledge suggests a direct line into the mind of God. We’re better served when our churches provide opportunities to learn how to safely grieve, discuss loss and death, and to explore the mysteries of what exactly lies beyond.

The best we can hope for is a faith in the promise of something better, and a commitment to making the best of life, simply for the sake of life itself.

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