Thursday, May 27, 2010

What 'Lost' Taught Us about Dying Well

[My take on the Lost finale and the whole series was posted online at Christianity Today's website.]

What 'Lost' Taught Us about Dying Well
The meaning behind "live together, die alone."
Al Hsu | posted 5/26/2010 12:08PM

Three episodes before the series finale of Lost, after witnessing the deaths of three beloved main characters, I thought to myself, "Oh, no—they're all going to die." At this point, so few original survivors of Oceanic 815 remained that the hope of anybody leaving the island alive seemed implausible.

I was glad that the finale didn't play out quite the way I had feared. But I was still sort of right: Everybody was going to die. Sometime, whether we saw it on screen or not.

I'm realizing that the entire series can be seen as a six-year meditation on how human beings approach death. In the pilot, death struck unexpectedly with a plane crash on a Pacific island. And every episode to follow dealt in some way with desperate efforts to live and avoid death.

At the beginning, the primary needs were survival. Food, water, shelter. Jack, Kate, Locke, Sawyer, and all the rest worked together to take care of the wounded and to help one another survive the island's threats. The goal was to avoid death and to get home.

Even though many unnamed redshirts and minor characters died in season 1, it wasn't until the first main cast death that viewers realized that not all of these survivors were going to make it off the island. And the Grim Reaper has steadily cut his way through the cast members each season. Some deaths were foreshadowed, like a looming terminal illness. But others came suddenly, without warning. Death is unpredictable.

As the series progressed, we as viewers reacted with all of the common responses of grief. I often found myself in denial. After the heart-wrenching season three finale, I kept hoping, "Maybe he isn't really dead. He survived somehow. We'll find out next season that he's okay." Many fans bargained with the directors to bring back beloved characters (which they did, in post-mortem appearances and flash-sideways).

As the death toll rose, a sense of resignation and inevitability came. The funerals on the beach happened more frequently. Again we'd see someone digging a grave, and again we'd see Hurley's downcast face. At first, there were brief ceremonies of remembrance, a few words spoken. After a while, not many remaining survivors were even left to pay tribute to those who had died.

By the end, all of us, characters and viewers alike, came to some degree of resignation and acceptance. One of the key lines in the finale that made sense of the whole series was "Everybody dies sometime." Death is inevitable. And while we can fight it and stave it off as long as we can, at some point, we recognize that there is nothing we can do to avoid it.

Rob Moll's new book The Art of Dying argues that over the last century or so, Christians have lost the practice of dying well. Christians used to have intentional ways to prepare for one's death, to number one's days. Christians approached death purposefully, making things right between them and God and others. These days, death has been medicalized and partitioned off from everyday life, leaving most of us without the resources to prepare adequately for death, whether one's own or a loved one's. We don't know what to do when death comes.

So a show like Lost can actually help us grapple with the reality of death. The characters' stories have often centered around "unfinished business" from their pre-island lives that needed to be resolved in some way. Moll notes that when Christians practice the art of dying, we learn to reconcile ourselves to God and others before death, saying important things like "Please forgive me," "I forgive you," "Thank you," and "I love you." Some of these very phrases were used in Lost (before and after characters' deaths), as a model to us for our own relationships. Some bloggers commented after the finale that the show had prompted them to cherish their own loved ones now, in this life, before it's too late.

Jack's goal from the beginning of the show was to get his people off the island. He wanted to get everybody home. As more and more people died along the way, it became increasingly clear that this was not going to happen. So I find it entirely appropriate that the series finale demonstrated that if characters could not get off the island literally, they did so spiritually.

Many fans were disappointed that the show did not resolve its vast mysteries and mythology. But at the end, the characters didn't really care about the origin of the island or the nature of the electromagnetic properties of the glowing light or whatever. What mattered most was the community they had formed and the relationships they had built during their time on the island.

At the end of the day, and at the end of our lives, we're not going to care if we understood how the Dharma Initiative fit into the epic confrontation between Jacob and the Man in Black. But we're going to want assurance that we will see our loved ones again, and that our eternal destiny is secure.

C. S. Lewis talked about Sehnsucht as a sense of longing for the eternal. We can view Lost through the lens of Sehnsucht, that deep within each character's heart was an eschatological longing for redemption. If the characters couldn't find that in this life, they would do so in the next life.

Evangelicals naturally critiqued the universalist nature of the finale. But we can also affirm that the show was headed in the right direction. This life is not all there is. Death is not the end.

It's almost certainly intentional that Jack Shephard's number in Lost was 23, evoking Psalm 23, "The Lord is my shepherd." (And the finale aired on May 23.) Jack's father, Christian Shephard, helped him find his way home.

Christian viewers of Lost can have confidence that we too have a Great Shepherd who finds the lost and leads us home. And we shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

Al Hsu is an editor at InterVarsity Press. He has written more about facing death in his book Grieving a Suicide. Hsu is a former columnist for Christianity Today.

3 comments:

Korianne said...

Thank you for this.

Melissa said...

This posting is very interesting because it encourages discussion about the topic of death through a pop-culture show. As Christians we shoudl have security in knowing that after death we face eternity with God and in perfect peace and harmony. Although we cannot fathom that, or being seperated from our loved ones, we should know God's plan is always perfect and supreme over ours.

wordlover said...

That is such a great insight! So often we brush off the death of characters as necessary to progress the story without ever reading into what we can learn from it. As Christians that seems especially true of our attitude toward pop-culture shows (like Lost), books, and movies. We cover this topic a lot at AGodRead.blogspot.com if you are interested. Thanks again for putting a deeper perspective out there!