I am about to make what will sound like a very extreme statement, so first I’ll just say it and then I’ll try to ward off some misunderstandings:
In a way, I kind of identify with the fictional characters of The Walking Dead more than I do with a lot of real people.
Now to try to preemptively avoid misunderstandings.
First, despite the way I often use fiction as a vehicle to discuss my personal philosophy, I am not who confuses fantasy with reality, ever.
Secondly, I’m not saying that I like or care more about these fictional characters than real people. No, real people are all that matter to me and all I ultimately care about. Fictional character are just fictional characters and that is all. I just relate, on one level, more to these fictional characters for certain reasons, than I do with most real people. Caring about and relating to are two different things.
Lastly, my relating to these fake characters only has the most superficial connection to the fact that this show is about a zombie apocalypse. Things like zombies and guns are largely irrelevant to this discussion.
The reasons why I identify with TWD’s characters has more to do with a certain mentality, a mindset. That is the survival mindset. Not a survivalist mindset, no—I’m not a survivalist and have no wilderness survival skills or knowledge.
I am talking simply about the kind of survival-oriented mindset that arises naturally as a result of life circumstances in which, for whatever variety of reasons, your survival is uncertain. And I mean literal, physical survival, not a metaphorical or emotional kind of survival.
The combination of factors that could lead to a person’s survival being in question are innumerable and they are all valid here. For me personally, it is due to a web of reasons mostly centering around a severe and chronic physical illness that affects every single aspect of my life in ways that I just can’t overstate or do justice to here (so I won’t even try).
The details could easily fill another book but, basically, the end result of this is an omnipresent sense of uncertainty. This isn’t the kind of abstract, philosophical uncertainty that simply comes with being alive. This is the kind of real, hard, brutal uncertainty that is constantly shrieking in your face, and you are caught in a perplexing Catch 22 situation in which it seems like all of your options only end up deepening the gravity of the situation.
This is why, when I watch The Walking Dead, it feels so true and real to me despite the horror/fantasy genre tropes. It is because of that thick atmosphere of desperation, that ever-present sense of uncertainty and possibly impending doom.
Here, then, are the main principles illustrated in TWD that resonate with me and provide me with a symbolic, pop mythical template that lends me the strength to endure in the face of my own desperate struggle to survive. I think they can help some of you too.
It’s the small things
[Warning: Minor Episode Spoilers]
Recently, one of my good friends, Lee, took me out for a rare dinner excursion. Since my physical condition makes it difficult for me to go out, it had been a very long time since I’d had any human contact with the outside world beyond the Internet and social media. Most of my days are spent in deep isolation, not by preference but by necessity, and I’m actually okay with that. I can deal with it. I mention it here simply to provide some context and contrast for what I’m about to reveal.
So we were out and I had before me a beautiful plate of pasta—a rare treat since my meals at home are usually very similar and basic day to day—and a glass of beer, being one of the tiny handful of times a year I indulge in an alcoholic drink. And just sitting with my friend having simple conversation. And very suddenly, to my own shock, I became so overwhelmed with gratitude and pleasure that I broke down and wept right there in front of him, in plain view of all the people around us. I was extremely embarrassed because my own sense of propriety would normally forbid this kind of thing. There’s no way I can provide the proper context for this in a way that could make people understand how and why it happened unless I relate all the details of my current situation. But I’d rather not, at least not here, so The Walking Dead becomes a convenient point of reference to use instead.
In this show and in these characters, we can truly see how it’s really the little things that can be the most meaningful life experiences, and how it is often only in very adverse life situations that we can truly realize and appreciate that.
Just think of the most recent examples in Season 4: how, in Episode 1 (“30 Days Without an Accident”), the members of the prison community enjoy a BBQ from the meat that Daryl hunted and brought in. How Carl finds and devours an industrial-sized can of chocolate pudding in Episode 9 (“After”). Or how Beth revels in finding a clean set of clothes and how she and Daryl bond over servings of moonshine in Episode 12 (“Still”). This latter example, in particular, illustrates how the most precious of these—the biggest of the little things, as it were—is simple human connection.
Only a handful of things really matter
Many of the things that we give so much time, energy and attention to in the course of our days don’t really matter much in the end. This is one of the numerous reasons why I personally can’t identify with a lot of people. They fret about things that do not orbit my experiential sphere. Sometimes, watching and listening to them interact among themselves often makes me feel like an alien observing the natives of a different world.
Please understand: I’m not saying that the way people go about their lives is somehow “wrong” in any way. It is simply a different experience that I cannot relate to. Obsessing over the innumerable things people obsess about is only human and quite the normal habit for those in the modern first world, especially when their more basic needs are being met. I often wish I could care about some of the very same things that other people care about, and if I were in a better place I probably would. That is, after all, one of the outward signs of a normal life. Just as with Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, when our more immediate, primal needs are taken care of, we naturally move up the tier to the other needs.
However, many of our so-called problems come about as a result of our frightened, confused and neurotic ways of going about trying to fulfill those needs. And even when we attain them, we are still not content because of that deep-seated morass of fear and neurosis that continues to torment and drive us to accumulating more and more.
In lieu of a more enlightened approach to fulfilling our hierarchy of needs, the next best thing (in terms of psychological growth) is to have the upper tiers of needs be taken away entirely. They are no longer viable options, or at least not options that you can afford to think too much about. This happens when, by brute necessity, for whatever reasons, life forces you to focus so hard on the bottom tiers of the pyramid that you just don’t have the time or energy left for the upper ones.
Now, you might think this sounds awful and, in a way it is. Obviously, it’s not an ideal situation for anyone. But I tell you: in some ways, it is absolutely liberating and enlightening.
This is for two reasons:
1. Let’s say that Person A has many of the things that we all long for, both the basic needs (safety, stability, food, sex) and the higher needs (wealth, recognition, creative fulfillment). However, this person is still unhappy and his misery becomes all the more pronounced because he cannot understand the lingering emptiness within himself when he has all those things that social conditioning have taught him to want. So he is confused and in his confusion, all the more miserable.
Now let’s say Person B is cold and hungry. What happens when she takes a bite of warm, delicious food? Sheer, unadulterated bliss. She has not seen, touched or talked to another human being in a while. What happens when she does? Joy and ecstasy. She is exhausted and in pain. When she slips into a warm bed, it is a heaven like no other. Person B’s consciousness and awareness is forced to abandon the realm of the loftier needs and to remain present in the primal body. When the body needs something urgently and it gets it, it goes into ecstasy. And if your awareness is stationed in the body rather than in the overthinking mind, you are in ecstasy.
Much of people’s persistent unhappiness is purely imagined but made real by their obsessive focus on it. I’m not saying their pain is not real. Everyone has pain, whether physical or emotional or both, and it is definitely real. I’m saying their persistent unhappiness regarding that pain isn’t real. If you take away the luxury for the mind to obsess about every little thing, what happens is that both “happiness” and “unhappiness” in the typical sense become moot points and pain simply becomes part of the dance, movement and flux of nature itself within you.
2. Acute crises force you to maintain extended periods of intense focus and concentrate as you try to find ways to alleviate the crisis. What happens when you concentrate deeply on something, anything, for prolonged periods of time? What happens is something that psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow,” which I don’t have the space here to discuss but which you can look up (better yet, read one of my favorite books of all time, Flow, or watch the TED video below for a summary).
How the above two principles relate to The Walking Dead is obvious. The situations of acute danger the characters constantly find themselves in force them to focus intensely on the task at hand to survive. Since, according to Dr. Csikszentmihalyi, the brain is at its happiest when it is deeply immersed in a meaningful task (it can be a menial or mundane task so long as it contributes toward a meaningful bigger picture)—and I can personally confirm this from repeated experience—some of the TWD characters are, in a strange way, “happier” than in their previous lives before the apocalypse.
Also, because of the horrid, miserable circumstances they are in, the characters of TWD learn what it means to focus on only the important things. It doesn’t mean they are all completely above pettiness, neurosis and normal human bulls**t. It just means that a lot of the things they used to worry about in their pre-apocalypse lives are no longer even an option. Those things have been taken away. Therefore, despite the fact that their current situation is terrible in many ways, in some ways they have become liberated.
Day by day, step by step
“Don’t look back, Carl. Just keep walking.”
—Rick (S4 E8, “Too Far Gone”)
My life circumstances used to be better, but it does me zero good right now to pine for that time, for things right now are so hard that I need to feverishly devote every ounce of my attention on the immediate task at hand, which is putting one foot in front of the other and nothing else.
One of the great psychological insights of both Buddhism and philosophical Taoism is that people make themselves both exhausted and miserable in the way they ceaselessly fixate on the past and the future. A common way that people misunderstand this, however, is that they think this means you’re supposed to become oblivious to the past and future.
It’s not about becoming oblivious. There is much to be learned from the past and much to plan for and be prepared for the contingencies of the future. Rather, it’s about what you put the majority of your attention on during your day-to-day activities.
Again, using TWD to illustrate: the characters still think about the future on an abstract level from time to time. They still have their hopes and desires for living some semblance of a normal life, and they think about these things in their intermittent moments of peace. During their time in the prison during Seasons 3 and 4, for instance, the safety and stability of the prison offered them a bit more luxury to do this.
However, these are the reasons why it was still important for them to focus on living and surviving day to day, one day at a time:
1. Future dreams and goals require small, daily tasks to eventually accomplish. If you’re constantly fantasizing about the future and/or regretting and longing for the past while you go about these daily tasks, your efforts will be diluted and weak because your mind is not focused. As a result, those daily tasks have a higher chance of failing and if those daily tasks don’t succeed, the long-term desires cannot be realized either. Your distraction will thereby lead you to fail, or “get killed by zombies.”
By all means, make your plans and set your goals. But once you’ve done that, break the process down into layer upon layer of micro-steps and as you are doing those micro-steps you must forcefully reject or ignore thoughts, fears and and fantasies of the future as they enter your mind. You can’t control the thoughts arising, but you can control whether you consciously follow them down the rabbit hole into Fantasyland or gently ignore them and return your full attention to the task at hand.
Even after finding the prison, there were still many moments of both subtle and acute danger for the TWD characters. If they had not devoted their absolute concentration to the daily tasks before them, they would not have been able to survive those occasions.
2. Fixating on the future is a form of self-torture in that you’re constantly reminding yourself you still don’t have what you want. Once you’ve decided what your goals and desires are, and you’ve figured out the daily tasks necessary in attaining them, you’ll simply be much happier by losing yourself completely in those daily tasks and ignoring thoughts of future desires as they enter your head. Try imagining, as I do, that those daily tasks are your long-term life goal. They are important and epic mythical quests. They are the sole purpose of your existence. They are the full extent of your duty and obligation as a human being so you therefore put everything you have into them. If you do this, then when your head hits the pillow at night you are at peace for you know you have completed your epic quest and have earned your rest. Isn’t that a better way to fall asleep than thinking about how you still don’t have what you want?
3. At some point or other, you may find yourself undergoing a period of protracted suffering which feels never-ending. The key to mitigating that sensation of eternal suffering is, once again, taking it one day at a time, determining the tasks that you need to do that day and then focusing on them completely as if your life depended on it (for it does in a way). You are not thinking about yesterday, not thinking about tomorrow. They don’t even exist. The universe has only one day in its lifespan and when you go to bed it will be the end of everything. The next day, you simply get up and do it again, willfully forgetting the fact that you did it yesterday. It sounds incredibly depressing; trust me, it is not. It takes practice and ferocious will, but if you’re able to do this well what starts to happen is that your sense of time essentially becomes fluid and amorphous and you forget the fact that your suffering feels never-ending because you are fully immersed in each day as it presents itself. Because that day is all that exists.
It is because I am able to do the three things above that in spite of my present circumstances, I am still quite content with life overall, all things considered. I am also very confident that I can eventually succeed in my ambitions if only my health and life can continue to hold out. It’s simply a matter of time. Some people may look at me and perhaps only see a sick loser with no money or visible accomplishments. I look at myself and see a god being painfully birthed into existence through a birth canal lined with razors and fire.
The mother of invention
TWD characters often pull a mini-MacGyver in that they’ll come up with ingenious ways of saving themselves in various situations. It’s fantasy, of course, but it symbolically illustrates a very real principle in that brutal necessity truly can be the mother of invention and creation. And creating something meaningful and offering it to people remains the time-honored ticket to a better life.
Of course, this isn’t always true and it depends on a number of factors. If you panic, for instance, your creativity won’t be at its best because your thinking brain shuts down. This is because panic is the body’s mechanism for shuttling every available resource, including your brain, into one goal and one goal only: hauling ass.
However, if you can strike a balance in which you feel the urgency of your situation while remaining more or less emotionally equanimous, your creativity can skyrocket. The brain is part of the body, after all, and the body is designed to do everything it can to survive. The problem is that most people’s minds are trapped in an endless loop of unnecessary thoughts, thus disjointing brain from body.
Bring your awareness into your body. Don’t think so much about the danger; simply feel the danger. And as you do so, concentrate thinking about the solutions, not the problems. People spend their brain power obsessing over the problems but funneling little of that mental energy into inventive solutions. Try it. You might be amazed at the ideas you’re able to come up with.
Why? What is it all for?
But what’s the point of trying so hard to survive? Simply for its own sake? Simply because that’s what the body is designed to do?
No. Even as my illness and struggles have made it harder for me to identify on the surface with the people around me, it has nevertheless helped me to unearth a hidden answer which, in the end, paradoxically brings me closer to people. But it has been extremely, extremely hard to recognize this blessing, so hard that I’m using a modern myth about global apocalypse to convey just how hard.
After the Governor-induced meltdown at the prison in S4 E8 (“Too Far Gone”), Michonne is shown wandering amongst the undead masses in resigned despair and apathy in S4 E9 (“After“). Then she sees a zombie that resembles her in some ways and this triggers an epiphany. She suddenly realizes that by closing her heart again, this is the destiny she is treading towards, becoming one of the unfeeling undead—figuratively and literally. And so, like a true hero, she reawakens her warrior spirit, draws her sword and decimates her demons and, finally, the ghosts of her tragic past (symbolized by her armless zombie slaves). From a mythical standpoint, it is one of the most beautiful, powerful scenes I have witnessed in any recent work.
And then come the crowning moments. While speaking out loud to her dead lover she answers his previous question: “Why?” (In other words, why all this suffering? Why all this pain?).
Michonne, having finally vanquished her demons, says, “I know the answer. I know why.”
I go into rapture when I watch this transformative sequence for I, too, now know why.
The great, foolish irony about we human beings is that when things are going too well for us, we forget what life is really all about after you strip away the many layers of bulls**t, fear and delusion.
The hidden gift of cataclysmic crises, of great pain and suffering, is that if you are willing to face your terrors and your demons, then the answer gradually emerges like the crystalline blue sky after a violent storm. God does not make it rain for forty days and nights—in other words, life does not make us suffer—to punish us. Life makes us go through overwhelming suffering to jolt us awake from the uncaring, unfeeling somnambulistic, zombie-like march of progress and self-gain of the modern first world in which the whole point of living becomes lost and forgotten.
It has taken two apocalypses, the larger societal one and the private inner one, for Michonne to realize this. And the greatest pinnacle in the entire series, for me, occurs in that beautiful moment in “After” when she stands on the front porch of the house that Rick and Carl are hiding in and peers through the window. She sees Rick and Carl. She weeps, nods and looks skyward, sending a silent prayer of gratitude and acknowledgement towards the heavens, saying thank you for this lesson. Thank you for this second chance.
Michonne, here representing the potential hero within you, has rediscovered what matters. She has reopened her heart. She has chosen to try again.
She has chosen to love again.
And that, my dear friends, is the answer to why.
The answer is love.
When things are going his way, any fool can proclaim to love the world while indulging in things that don’t matter. We suffer these cataclysms so that we can remember that even when all else is washed away, love can still remain. Indeed, it is the only thing that matters. And intrinsic to love is the helping and serving of others. For when we do so we learn to love heroically, unconditionally, even while immersed in the bowels of a private hell. But that love is the very force that will bring us out of hell.