Despite death we still want to live

Professor Joel Christensen looks at how we try to understand the mass loss of human life by reflecting on Homeric narratives

The number of those lost to the quakes in Turkey and Syria are over 40,000 with future increases almost certain. From the moment of the quake throughout the rescue operations we have seen the predictable narratives of the modern world: the needless loss driven by poor urban planning, and the near impossibility of comprehending that scale of loss.

In the first days after the quake, many of my colleagues on social media used their platforms to share information and to solicit donations to help. Others tried to make the devastation relatable by cataloging the destruction of archaeological sites or making comparisons to historical tragedies. And still others, in response, objected in turn that this was not a time for historical parallels or lamenting lost antiquities when human lives were disappearing one by one.

Unimaginable loss

This conflation of passion and knowledge is all too familiar from our shared online world, and I cannot rightly fault anyone. We live in a period of extreme desensitization to human suffering. I have written before about our troubles of counting and then memorializing the dead from COVID-19. Part of our inability to grasp the loss of millions of our fellow humans is the scale: our minds cannot disaggregate millions into distinct, loved individuals. We cannot handle the task cognitively.

Another aspect of this inability is our collective experience over the past 40 years. My life’s memory of our shared news is one of disasters: the Challenger explosion, viewed from kindergarten; mechanized war on CNN in the First Gulf War; the Oklahoma City Bombing; the Columbine shootings and all the tragic mass shootings since; 9/11; twenty years of a “war against terror” in which our losses are dwarfed by the destruction we caused around the world; and the COVID era of nonstop social media ruin.

I am certain that past generations knew no end of suffering. I am certain that ours is the first to have bear near constant exposure to human suffering and death. The constant witnessing of trauma dehumanizes, it desensitizes and exposes our deep-seated prejudices. We count as most important the loss of those most like us and our news algorithms respond in kind.

The one and the many

I fall into that group of colleagues who take refuge in their work when the world is too much. I try to imagine how ancient audiences responded to trauma. I think of the way that ancient epic and tragedy provided frameworks for thinking about human suffering. (What else is the point of Aristotelian “recognition” leading to “pity” and fear”?)

One of the problems I have always had with Greek epic is the way that the Iliad and the Odyssey pit the fame of their individual heroes against the nameless masses who suffer and die for or because of them. Achilles and Odysseus, in their respective epics, are supernatural disasters wiping out a generation of people.

Fame is a scarce resource: how can we tell every story of the thousands who died at Troy in a way that is digestible and has meaning. Instead, in the Iliad, we hear about how the rage of Achilles brings doom to his own people and Hektor dies for his city with no hope for his people’s survival. Epic works in a part-for-the-whole relationship.

Through the story of Achilles, we are supposed to come to understand the loss and pain of war and be able to translate it from one person to another. When Andromache laments the loss of her husband and says that Hektor was her brother, her father, her uncles, I think she echoes this: we cannot emotionally or cognitively process the loss of the many, so we try to understand it through the death of the few.

I don’t think that Homeric epic is the only art form to understand this. In addition to living in a period of constant exposure to human suffering, we are offered near constant apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic narratives. Every successful film or series that explores the fall of civilization provides us with montages of raging zombies, crashing comets, or disastrous floods; but this only plays on our fears.

Despite death we still want to live

What I find moving about post-apocalyptic narratives is not when they show us how horrible it is to die, but when they explore why, despite death, we might still want to live. The recent episode of HBO’s The Last of Us, “Long, Long Time” pauses from the gut-wrenching survival narrative to linger on the story of two people who fall in love and make a life with each other at the end of the world. The sweetness and the improbability of this episode makes it more poignant. It is a reminder that life is always what we make of it. We save each other from fear and loneliness and make lives together, even in the darkest of times.

As the stories of the earthquake’s survivors poured out, we focused not on the losses but the improbable survival: a baby born in the wreckage, a small child struggling for hours on end to keep their sibling from being crushed by the ruins. We can comprehend these individual stories; we can root for the living because we cannot cope with the dead.

There’s a line from the Jerusalem Talmud (4:9.1) echoed in the Qu’ran (5.32) that echoes our relationship with loss: “anyone who destroys a single life as acted as if he has destroyed all humankind; and whoever saves a life has saved all humankind.” I used to think that the fame of the individual prevented us from appreciating the many, but now I understand that because we cannot comprehend the loss of the many, we can only mourn the few.

This brings no comfort to those in mourning and those whose lives have been forever changed. This does nothing to make up for all the lives whose stories go untold. But it may help us understand another’s humanity just enough to do better for the real lives we encounter.

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Joel Christensen is Professor and Senior Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs at Brandeis University. He has published extensively and some of his work include Homer’s Thebes (2019) and A Commentary on the Homeric Battle of Frogs and Mice (2018). In 2020, he published The Many-Minded Man: the Odyssey, Psychology, and the Therapy of Epic with Cornell University Press.