This column originally appeared in The Age
My father prepared for death like he prepared for most things: with effortless practicality. A melanoma had insinuated itself in his subcutaneous fat, and the prognosis was poor. It would almost certainly crash through and spread, metastasising freely and fatally within him. “It’s probably terminal, isn’t it?” he asked his doctor. “We’re all terminal, mate,” the doctor responded. Dad drew up his will.
At the time my father was 48 and I was eight, and to the astonishment of those old enough to know the score, he survived. In his terse cab driver wisdom, he reflected years later: “I thought that if I was going to die then there was nothing I could do about it. I thought that I was the one least affected. There were three kids who needed a Dad.”
The ancient thinker Cicero said that to philosophise is to learn how to die, but my old man would have much preferred Michele de Montaigne’s outlook: don’t sweat it. “If you don’t know how to die,” Montaigne wrote, “don’t worry; Nature will tell you what to do on the spot, fully and adequately.”
This week death has been on many a Melburnian’s mind after a wall suddenly collapsed onto a Swanston Street footpath and killed three, while that morning a 14-year-old pedestrian—again, merely using a footpath—was fatally hit by a truck. There was news, also, of Beverley Broadbent’s suicide. But how appropriate is it to lift meaning from someone else’s sorrow? As outsiders, what can we expect to learn about our life from the deaths of others?
The heavy coverage of the Swanston Street story attests to how stung we were, partly because the accident’s pitiless haphazardness forced us to consider our own mortal vulnerability. But there is a corollary to our interest: were we not psychic parasites, leaching profundity from the pain of others?
Perhaps, but I think that is overly cynical. Yes, the three deaths on Swanston Street exposed an unspoken taxonomy of random death: those that penetrate our studied indifference, and those that we shrug off. Those that receive widespread reporting, and those that don’t. This moment was not dissimilar to the barbaric murder of Jill Meagher in its ability to galvanise our sympathies and imagination.
And yes, our communal displays of grief are often theatrical and mawkish, our language never quite sufficient. We cast out clichés and consolations like weak spells.
But this is not to say our communal grief lacks sincerity. The truth is, we rationally know that death is all around us. If you’re without a God you might also sense that the universe metres out punishment impersonally and randomly, and the price of emotional health is to partially anaesthetise yourself against the ample evidence of sudden and senseless death. We develop a selective numbness, and while this might be damaging to the artist, for the rest of us it’s just how we get by.
But from time to time our selective numbness is lifted, as it was this week, and we are flooded with shock, sadness, sympathy and recognition. It’s churlish to condemn the instinct, vain as it is. The toughest police officer—an experienced witness to tragedy—might break when the young murder victim’s dress is the same colour as the one worn by his daughter that day. The event is personalised, the dam broken. So it is with us.
But what do we do with this shock, sadness and sympathy? Unfortunately, not much. Too often we confer our impotent condolences then shuffle back towards numbness. I do it and you probably do too.
Even my father’s brush with oblivion didn’t change much for him. After the relief faded there was no inner transformation, no bellowing of carpe diem. He admits as much, but can’t explain why and there’s a sad sort of bemusement in his uncertainty as to why his cancer didn’t prove pivotal.
Which seems fairly normal. After shock recedes, we often slip back onto the tracks of our lives. We have children to raise, mortgages to repay, marriages to nurture, fears to quell. There’s only so much revelation we can take. Most of us don’t have the stomach for it, and it would be ruinous for our nervous systems to be in a permanent state of union with the world’s suffering.
But if you’ve been thinking about these poor souls this week, you could try to make it count for something. You could tinker inside a little. You could take the risk of being a little less numb and a little more awake. I’m sure Montaigne—and my Dad, for that matter—would agree. Death comes to us all, and the trick is not to learn how to die but how to live as openly as possible.