Don't Become The Walking Dead

The show The Walking Dead is getting a lot of acclaim for its first two seasons, the second of which just concluded. Adapted from a graphic novel, this TV show follows the lives of characters trying to survive in a world that has been taken over by “walkers”, more commonly known as zombies.

Before you tune out (groan... not zombies...), I’m not suggesting that you have to watch the show (it is quite gory and brutal at times). The thing that has mostly gripped me in this show is the characters that they have developed. The show is not really about zombies, well it is, but that’s just the backdrop, the crisis that forces these characters to change, grow and develop.

What The Walking Dead does so well is show the variety of responses to living in a world of violence and brutality. Some characters come to believe that becoming hard, cold and brutal themselves is the only way to confront the horror all around them. Others battle to maintain a glimmer of hope in the darkness. These ones attempt to hold on to their own humanity and keep a measure of dignity and integrity even in the most difficult of circumstances. What has really struck me about this show is not the battle between people and zombies, but rather the internal battles that the characters must wage. The real story is the fight to maintain humanity and not become one of the walking dead yourself. Once you’ve allowed the darkness to win and the violence and fear to take over, you’ve become the walking dead. Life lived without hope; life lived without reaching for compassion, dignity, integrity and character, despite circumstances, is a life where we have lost touch with our humanity. The metaphor of zombies is quite poignant in this case; will you maintain your humanity or will you lose it? The show makes it clear that you don’t have to become a zombie to lose your humanity.

I just watched The Hunger Games last night at midnight (because I’m a huge nerd). I’ve already blogged about this book series, so I’ll be brief. As you get into the third book in this series, many people get disturbed by the internal struggle of the characters in the book, but I love it. Too many times we have movies, books etc. where there is violence and brutality and it seems not to impact the lead characters or heroes in any significant way. They can witness brutal things and even do brutal things, kill the bad guy, enact vengeance, but it leaves no emotional or psychological scars. This is not the case in The Hunger Games which makes it far more realistic than the ugly picture painted when a ‘hero’ can kill and witness killing and not have it tear them up inside.

The show 24 also discusses this theme. Jack Bauer witnesses and participates in horrible things. It takes its toll on Jack; he is not immune to the death all around him. At the same time he is clear that to be able to do the things he does, something is not quite right inside.

Where did we get this view of heroes that like Rambo or John McClane from Die Hard, heroes can witness the worst things and participate in violence and killing and have it not impact them psychologically or emotionally? The truth is, if you can kill and have it not effect you, there is something seriously wrong. I wouldn’t be surprised if a psychological assessment of some of our favourite, most bad-ass movie heroes revealed them to actually be somewhere on the sociopathic spectrum.

I’ve shared in this blog before that a 2005 study revealed an average of 17 veterans were committing suicide every day in the US. Participation in violence has devastating effects on our emotions and psychology. It is no wonder that many attempt to block out those effects. However, to block out the very normal, human response to violence means to, in some ways, block out our humanity entirely. We train ourselves to cut off our emotional and psychological responses, it’s a coping mechanism that even children subconsciously train themselves to do.

Coping mechanisms are not long-term solutions however. No matter what we’ve been through in our lives, we will need to eventually talk through those experiences and stop shutting out the pain in order to come to a place of real healing.

There are many reasons we allow ourselves to become the walking dead. Abuse, broken relationships, cultural expectations, gender expectations, and things we’ve experienced and things we’ve done can all make us afraid to feel. For whatever reason people begin to turn away from compassion, from showing love to those around them, away from empathy and away from belief in hope, the result is the same; we minimize our own humanity and become the walking dead.

The greatest fiction, like The Walking Dead and the Hunger Games, can use imaginary circumstances, like zombies, to give us a very real glimpse at humanity. It seems strange to think that a show about zombies can teach you something about being a human, but that is exactly what The Walking Dead does.  No matter the circumstances, we can hold on to hope, we can hold onto our dignity and our compassion. We may not often have to make choices between life and death, but every day we must make choices about they type of life we will live, a life truly alive.

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