“Owning up to the ‘good-bye’ that is built into our finite human existing makes possible the saying of an authentic ‘Hello!’ ” —Robert D. Stolorow
For most people, death is something that will happen to us someday. Not today. Not tomorrow. But sometime in the future, distant enough that we need not concern ourselves at the moment. In other words, we ignore it and forget about it. Yet in doing so, we forget who we are. Death is not just something that happens at the end of life. It is a part of us throughout, whether we confront it or not. In facing death, traumatic as it may be, we cannot help but change, grow, and clarify what it is that we love and care about most. The preciousness of time comes to the fore.
It’s true that people understand death in different ways. Does the soul continue on or does it die with the body? Is there life after death, or does it end with this one? Whatever one’s beliefs about the hereafter, death is the end of life as we know it. When a loved one dies, he or she departs from us in a way that is undeniable. We are forced to notice their importance to us, as well as everything we value. In romantic relationships, as often depicted in romantic comedies, each partner’s love becomes inestimable often only after it has been tested with the threat of loss.
Confronting death as an ever-present reality means mourning the loss of all we hold dear. It is no mystery that death is not a favored topic for cocktail conversation. It’s often depressing and lacks a joy and levity that is so much a part of life. When a loved one dies, we often say that he or she “passed on,” avoiding the harsh word of death, attempting to soften the painful reality for the sake of our loved ones. Few people choose to spend their lives isolating themselves with thoughts of death. It is isolating because it forces us to depart from ordinary social values.
David Fincher’s film Fight Club (1999) is a dark and violent satire that exposes the superficialities of commercial life and hints at the meaninglessness of life altogether. And yet the film holds great potential to discover meaning. The antihero Tyler Durden recruits a large number of young men into his “fight club,” and insists they shun the values associated with ordinary social life, particularly advertising. “You’re not your job,” he preaches. “You’re not how much money you have in the bank. You’re not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet.” Durden pulls these young men away from their ordinary day-to-day living into a profound confrontation with themselves. He prescribes to his followers that they let “what truly doesn’t matter slide.” Fincher’s film hints at the sort of existential confrontation I’m trying to describe. Durden insists to his pupils, “You have to know, not fear, that someday you are going to die.”
It would be a mistake, however, to conflate the commentary on death in Fincher’s fight club with my own. Fincher’s Durden develops a following, a cult of sorts. He removes people from the social conformity of ordinary life only to foster a new conformity to the cult of fight club. Confrontation with death, whether through the loss of a loved one, escaping the threat of physical harm, or simply philosophical contemplation, is always traumatic. It leaves one disoriented, forcing us to abandon the thoughts and beliefs that root us in everyday life. Fincher’s fight club finds its way toward destruction and a certain kind of meaninglessness, where there’s little, if any, light at the end of a dark tunnel. The commentary on death in Fight Club treats life recklessly, not carefully. In coming to terms with death, life needs to be respected in order to preserve the opportunity for growth. It is then that from darkness may come great illumination.
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