In a world of the living, why do we spend so much time with death?
We are surrounding by things that are alive — people, animals, plants — even the planet itself. And yet, we choose to spend so much time mired in the contrary, where the exit trumps the arrival and prejudices the journey in between.
It doesn’t start out that way. Most arrivals are celebrated with joy, beginning with the initial announcement, the “gender reveal” party with ensuing baby shower, and the actual birth.
The exit follows a similar pattern, but with sadness — the announcement, the viewing and the funeral. In between birth and death, however, we spend so much time relishing in the departure process, that it skews the present.
We have all heard the saying “you are what you eat.” Strangely, as unhealthy as it sounds, we all eat death. We consume it constantly through books, movies and TV shows, and sadly, most of us don’t even realize it.
When is the last time you have watched a show on television in prime time that didn’t have death as a primary plot or subplot? That includes news programs, dramas, documentaries and even sitcoms on occasion. There are a few, but not many.
Even on “Seinfeld,” arguably the greatest comedy of all-time, we all remember when Susan was killed off while licking those toxic envelopes.
“Dateline NBC” would die if it weren’t for death. It’s all they focus on and the sole reason they do it is because people watch. We watch. In fact, there isn’t a single show on television that is there because people don’t watch it.
The American consumer has been studied more than anything else. There is plenty of information as to what we will watch, what we listen to, what we drive, what we wear and what we eat.
Movie and television producers feed off this data like a hyena who has stumbled upon an unguarded Thanksgiving feast. As a result, they give us slasher movies, serial killers, carnivorous dinosaurs, hungry sharks, alien invaders and James Bond, among others.
I love Bond movies. I love the unique storylines, the gadgets, the scenery, the music, even the co-stars, but this last one, “No Time to Die,” hardly provided any time between deaths.
Sitting in my reclining theater seat, and not including the previews for similar movies, I watched in graphic detail 163 people get killed in 2 hours and 43 minutes, including James Bond himself.
Contrast that with the first Bond movie “Dr. No” in 1962 where 12 people died. Like a hunting party contest, 007museum.com even keeps a running tally of “Bond Kills” to determine which character has the most.
Why did I watch that movie? I also question why I paid $8 to get in and another $20 in concessions. Even more alarming, our discussion afterward wasn’t about the 163 people we watched get shot, blown up, run over or poisoned to death. Instead, it was which actor would play James Bond in the next movie?
In this drama we call life, I know that I am not alone, nor am I the only one desensitized toward all of this. The vast library of death-related content speaks for itself. Why are we so fascinated and unmoved by watching people die that we flock to the big screen or bring it freely to our small screens, but when “real” death shows up at our door we are left completely devastated?
It’s the great hypocrisy.
Sports often provides an escape from real-life troubles, but we have managed to bring death into that too — just to make it more interesting.
For example, “sudden death” is a phrase that depicts the fate of whichever team allows the next point — even though no team, that we know of has suffered a sudden death by losing a game. Calling it “sudden death” however, piques our interest and pulls us into the battle.
“Do-or-die” is another popular trigger phrase where life hangs in the balance by whether an 18-year-old kid makes a free throw. Again, he might lose his girlfriend, but no one has died by missing a free throw. And yet, when we hear an announcer say “It’s do-or-die” we tend to watch a little more closely.
“Sink or swim” is a catchy one similar to “do-or-die” where the ability for a team or athlete to stay alive hangs in the balance. “Now or never” also supports the concept that “There is no tomorrow.” Our mere existence rides on the outcome.
Those phrases have been rumbling through college football in the wake of USC’s and UCLA’s sudden defection from the Pac-12 and admittance into the Big Ten. The fear of exclusion, or even extinction, has rattled football programs, conferences and fans, who are grasping for stability, no matter the cost or the tradition they must give up.
This is the culture we have created. It’s all or nothing, and if we aren’t getting it all right now, then nothing else matters. Fix it or we die. These recent storylines on talk radio show panic and fear and foster desperate responses — “The Pac-12 is dying.” “The Big 12 can’t survive if it doesn’t expand right now.” “The ACC must form an alliance with the Pac-12.” “The Big 12 must kill the Pac-12 in order to stay relevant.”
Perhaps the mystery of death, or lack of understanding, or general fear of it, is what fuels our fascination with worst-case scenarios. History shows that if we stay in that frame of mind, similar and reflective entertainment will always accompany us no matter what conference BYU and Utah belong to.
The certainty of death should inspire us to focus on the joy of living. I thought of that as I sang “Live Like You Were Dying” with Tim McGraw and the rest of the sold-out crowd last week at Stadium of Fire in Provo.
What a concept! Live! Let’s do it. Let’s get outside, let’s get to the games, lets scream, yell, eat nachos (while exercising the calories off later) and throw around high-fives. Let’s choose to live like we are dying, instead of spending our lives consumed by the prospects of death.
Just imagine what tonight’s TV lineup would look like if our true interests focused on the joy of living instead of the sting of death. One result might be that we aren’t even camped in front of the TV or glued to YouTube to even notice.
It’s important to remember, we are not the victims, we are the audience. We can demand better, or in the works of death, we can demand less. We speak with our money. “Top Gun: Maverick” showed that a blockbuster movie can still make a billion dollars with good actors, a good story and minimal death.
Note to Hollywood: Make more of these.
I like to think we aren’t so far gone that we can’t turn it around and at least find a reasonable balance. But it does feel like we are on the cusp of losing some serious ground. You know, like, it’s “do-or-die,” or “sink or swim,” or “now or never,” and we must act like “there is no tomorrow.”
Just please, please let’s do whatever it takes to avoid “sudden death” — that pretty much takes the life out of the options.
Dave McCann is a contributor to the Deseret News and is the studio host for “After Further Review,” co-host for “Countdown to Kickoff” and the “Postgame Show,” and play-by-play announcer for BYUtv.