Walking into the Sea: Strength in the Face of Death

“In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,

With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me.

As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free

While God is marching on.”

– The last chorus of Julia Ward Howe’s Battle Hymn of the Republic

Throughout the myths and legends scattered across human history, the concept of a noble death is often romanticized. Whether it is the ancient practice of seppuku in Japanese culture, the numerous “Last Stands” across military history or the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth in the New Testament, examples of bravery in the face of death are littered across history. However, not all sources agree on what makes for a noble death. Some cultures would even argue that the practices of others are abhorrent, celebrating the loss of life in a matter unbefitting to the faith. Abrahamic religions, for example, traditionally find suicide to be blasphemous and unholy while the Samurai of Japan believed it was the ultimate way to obtain absolution for failures in life. Even I have found myself stirred by the imagery of dying in the name of a noble cause, refusing to bow to a stubborn world you fought so hard to change (The French students in Les Miserables being a perfect example). In Colson Whiteheads novel, Zone One, a man known only by his nickname, Mark Spitz, apparently ends his life after realizing the futility of fighting the hordes of the dead and simply wades in the river of the dead; “Fuck it”, he thinks, “You have to learn to swim sometimes.” (Whitehead, 322) Although it is unlike the other examples I’ve presented, I still find some semblance of nobility in Spitz’s action, accepting dismal circumstances with dignity instead of, as Dylan Thomas puts it, raging against the dying of the light.

Although I would never condone suicide or senseless loss of life, Mark’s actions do not seem to fit into traditional Western understanding of self-harm. Although he realizes he is likely going to die, he also prepares himself for the possibility that he may survive the onslaught. He readies himself, accepting his self-described mediocrity while acknowledging his skill at survival. Beyond this, he seems to make peace with death, almost laughing as he comes to realize the enormity of the task he is about to undertake and the near certainty that this is the end, for himself and likely all of mankind (Whitehead, 322). This revelation, terrible as it may be, seems to grant Mark a semblance of peace. In many ways this reflects one of the teachings of Buddhism, stressing that an acceptance of death is like the settling of an argument: difficult, but ultimately leading to peace. I also believe it’s important to understand the gravity of the circumstances surrounding Mark’s decision. Suicide is regarded as a tragedy because it is viewed as a tragic and avoidable loss of innocent life. In Mark’s world, civilization has crumbled and the efforts to rebuild it have apparently falling apart. The living dead are on a warpath never before witnessed and all contact with the reconstruction camps has been lost. In this radically altered world, trapped in a city without support or supplies, loss of life before ones “natural time” is inevitable. Worse still, falling to the undead may only see you rise again to become one, adding another soldier in the army of the apocalypse. In a world so far gone, so inhospitable to human life, what’s the point of even trying to survive?

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