Walking Dead speaks to the malaise contemporary Americans experience: the suspicion that each one of us is completely alone in this most modern of nightmares, fighting against hordes of human-seeming but inhuman creatures intent on devouring us, and unable to fully trust even those we know to be human because they are our own kind.
Since I was a teenager, I’ve broken into uncontrollable tears when watching any play, whether the Milwaukee Highschool of the Arts production of Guys and Dolls, or Brecht, or any play at all. I was more likely to cry when already lonely, which should have pointed me to the explanation, but it was only after seeing an episode of the Walking Dead that I realized what the deal is. Almost as soon as I flipped the channel and saw the group of Walking Dead characters doing their Walking Dead thing, looking serious and talking in terse, loaded phrases, and acting selflessly and committed to each other, I was in tears. It doesn’t matter what the context, the thing that busts me up is seeing people act selflessly and support each other. It’s interesting that I’ve been vulnerable to this feeling long before I knew what caused it or what it meant.
I don’t have any evidence for this, but I’m pretty sure I’m not alone experiencing this kind of reaction. The popularity of the Walking Dead show seems to bear this out: there are many good shows on TV, but Walking Dead is somewhat unique in presenting characters who are by definition an ensemble, a group of survivors forced to act in concert and rely on each other for literally everything. We see our own lives in the predicament of the show’s characters as they struggle to survive in a world populated by inhumanity. Equally importantly, we wish we had the kind of mutual support and close-knit community they do. We are attracted to the story because we wish we were them, which is saying a lot– the citizens of “the most powerful and prosperous nation on earth” would trade places in a flash with a band of survivors hanging on for life in a post-apocalyptic zombie infested world, if only for a couple hours each week. We are that damaged, and that starved for community.
Personally, I had a fine childhood as these things go, surely a better one than most people have these days. In the Soviet Union, most families lived in multi-generational households, and I had the benefit of grandparents and great-grandparents spending at least as much time with me as my parents as a young child. This is all that’s meant by having a good childhood: that a child is loved and attended to, that he/she has role-models to look up to, that he/she knows that though it might do something undesirable, he/she is good and only the inappropriate action is under censure. I had more problems once my parents, baby sister, and I emigrated to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, U.S.A. in 1989. I was 9 years old. For the first time in my life, I didn’t have a supportive family available much of the time as my parents threw themselves into the getting ahead in life, and to add to it, I had to deal with being an outcast at school, learning English and what all. I don’t want to overstate things or leave the impression that I blame anyone for anything, or view myself as exceptional in any way, good or bad. It seems that my experiences are roughly par for the course, at least for western families, and a huge step up from being born into effective slavery, being kidnapped to become a child soldier, or having to pick tomatoes for pennies until your back permanently gives out at age 26 and cancer from the pesticides becomes terminal at age 29.
There are more people living in an earthly hell today than ever before, both in absolute terms and as a proportion of total humanity, but that doesn’t mean we should be glad we got off with merely psychological trauma. Psychological trauma can leave people unable to live satisfying or meaningful lives, just like any other kind of trauma, and because it is frequently unseen and its victims stigmatized, even, it can be as disruptive as any other curse to befall a person. Again, just to be clear, I am not suggesting that westerners with depression are as urgent a priority as landmine-maimed children. But we are making landmines and assault weapons faster than ever, and churning out emotionally scarred babies and children at equally frantic speeds, so let’s cut the bullshit out. This essay focuses on emotional trauma because it seems to me it is highly misunderstood and ignored, while victims of wars we sponsor elsewhere in the world will always receive hysterical attention from certain people, followed by airdrops of “aid”: one box of food for the victims, one box of guns for the killers. One box of medical supplies for the victims, one box of mortars for the killers. Very symmetrical, our “aid.” So glad we’ve become so impartial and scientific in the west, bias is such a dangerous thing.
We don’t have any way to compare the rate at which we suffer psychological disorders today to that of a pre-industrial, pre-urban, or pre-civilized age, but there are many clues that seem to suggest that we are much crazier than our “uncivilized” forebears. It should probably be mentioned that we are much more violent and homicidal than our uncivilized ancestors, propaganda like War Before Civilization notwithstanding. As for our mental health, depression, an epidemic affecting 17% of Americans over their lifetime, seems to be a side effect of civilized, western-style life. In North America, the probability of having a major depressive episode within any year-long period is 3-5% for males and 8-10% for females. If you believe depression is a chemical imbalance, this statistic is baffling. Why would evolution, or Jeebus, make women twice as likely to become seriously depressed? What possible advantage could there be in becoming morose and ineffectual, and how could a loving god curse his creations in such a way? If you consider depression as the result of living in conditions unsuited to the physical, mental, and spiritual needs of a living being, the mystery solves itself: a misogynistic society is bound to depress women more than men.
A few thoughts on mental illness:
1. Mental illness is mostly a response of an animal to a traumatic situation it can’t escape except by rearranging its relationship to (or perception of) its environment.
2. Medicine now says that depression is the result of faulty wiring in the brain, or bad genes. If there was profit in it, the same people would be looking for the bad genes and the faulty neurons which cause people to fall in love, grieve, or experience joy. Depression is an emotion, and most often an appropriate reaction to unacceptable external experience.
3. Under capitalism, medicine will always develop and promote short term treatments which address symptoms only, rather than targeting the causes of the problem. Long-term solutions, involving deep soul-searching and examination of the environment as thoroughly as the patient, are by nature not profitable.
4. Most therapists offer their patients self-delusion as the sole remedy for their problems. I am yet to meet a therapist who will say, “what you are describing is a situation which doesn’t meet the standards and expectations of a living being. Find a way to change or escape this situation as quickly as possible, or you will continue to be depressed.” That’s bad enough, but their job is frequently to convince you that you’re dead sick and need therapy or drugs, when you are actually experiencing the appropriate response to your situation– your body and mind saying, “This is unacceptable, get me out of here.”
5. AA would appear to be a different kind of a solution to the same problem, as the methods used there appear drastically different from therapy or psychiatry. Yet, AA insists that the problems a person experiences are entirely of their own making. This is an interesting and complicated problem. On the one hand, AA works by giving people what they actually need to get better: friends, a community, an extended family. On the other hand, it insists that there is nothing wrong with the world, and anyway we’re not going to discuss it, which is so patently untrue many people can’t take AA seriously. The consequence of this doctrine is the need to repent, admit one’s guilt, and in addition, wear blinders going forward. This is why AA drives so many people away and looks like a cult to others.
6. “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Niebuhr’s original version: “God, give us the grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things which should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.” Quite a difference there. I like the original better.
7. When you’re told that you need to quit smoking or lose weight or whatever to be happy, you’re saying that you’re not good enough to be loved as you are, which everyone is. You’re also putting the cart before the horse, because achieving anything like quitting smoking or losing weight requires being to some extent loved and supported, which is what you’re trying to achieve by becoming more lovable and less smelling of smoke. Besides, many people smoke or overeat precisely because these things offer some comfort, however counter-productive, for the loveless conditions of their lives.
I spent my teenage years “depressed,” was pretty good through college, and became “depressed” again after graduating. I’m still frequently depressed today, but not like I used to get. The incidents of “depression” in my life correspond in every case to unsatisfactory conditions in my life, and the perception that there’s nothing I can do to improve things. I’m not suggesting that there is no such thing as serious depression which requires being treated with drugs, but in my life, the life of someone who was mostly raised in a loving atmosphere, serious depression has always been associated with bad things going on outside of my head, that is, my depression has always been situational. Most people are either unaware of the trauma they may have suffered, or don’t recognize unacceptable conditions in their present environment as such. When afflicted with depression, such people would have to conclude that the problem originates inside of themselves and needs to be treated with drugs, when the real culprit is the life they find themselves leading, and can at least theoretically be fixed by returning these conditions to a state more in agreement with the expectations of living beings.
We are living today in a society based on organized lovelessness, in Aldous Huxley’s incisive words. Humans, like all other animals, have certain expectations built into their development, expectations which, when not met, cause various disruptions to our development as human beings. These expectations are simple: for example, we’ve needed no instructions on what babies and children need to grow up into healthy adults for 99% of our species’ existence on this planet. Jean Liedloff’s The Continuum Concept is a profound look at what these simple expectations are, as practiced by tribes of hunters and gatherers in the Amazon when she lived among them in the 1960s. Liedloff calls children raised according to the species- appropriate expectations Continuum children, and explains much about the differences between such well-adjusted children and the ones deprived various continuum experiences so common in our society. There’s more to it than just love, but love seems to be such a huge part of the continuum childhood experience that that will be the part I will focus on.
Children who receive the appropriate amounts and kinds of love at the appropriate stage of their development grow up into the kinds of adults their culture expects them to become. As hard as this is to believe for modern-day Americans, children who are raised by loving adults in a functioning community don’t go through rebellious stages, don’t experience “generation gaps”, don’t have to go looking for themselves. They know who they are at each stage of their life, and possess the confidence that who they are is right and good. From a helpless babe in arms, to a toddler tagging after older kids, to an older child learning about their world, to teenagers trying out their growing skills and talents, all the way to adults ready to take up the tasks of full members of society, they have the confidence that they are loved and wanted for who they are, and know that when they are scolded, it is for something they do, not who they are– and are just as eager to correct the offending behavior as their guardians. Although love is the crucial component of this process, their need for role-models can’t be overstated: we learn through observation and emulation, and being a part of a group whose members themselves know and like who they are is essential.
Many things can go wrong in a child’s life, and sometimes it seems as though we’ve set up a cruel laboratory to find out all the terrible ways a person’s life can be disrupted by withholding the appropriate continuum experiences from them as they develop. If denied the love and support they need and expect from those around them at some point of their upbringing, they will sustain trauma, a hole inside of them that they will seek to fill for the rest of their life. The many ways in which such trauma will play out in a persons life can also be somewhat reduced and simplified: they will seek to fill this void with love, or substitutions for love, for as long as the basic issue is unaddressed, if not their whole life. They will enter into relationships they will sabotage, engage in self-destructive behaviors, try to replace the missing love with food, drugs, money, sex, etc., and so on. They will be manipulable by anyone willing to offer them love or some substitute as bait. They will respond well to advertising and be very good consumers, but will make poor neighbors, parents, lovers, or friends. Unless the pattern is addressed or interrupted, they will raise their children exactly as they themselves were raised, holding out love as a reward or punishment in order to control them and extract love from them.
“Our present economic, social and international arrangements are based, in large measure, upon organized lovelessness.” In fact, our civilization not only creates unloved and loveless people, but would be impossible without such people. Modern civilization can be said to be fueled by lovelessness. Someone, at some point, figured out that people who live in large close-knit groups don’t make for very good workers or consumers, and without making their discovery public, little by little transformed the world into a cruel emotional torture chamber, graduating people into the shopping mall/ labor camp world beyond. People who live among their kin are just not depressed enough to consider spending their free time in mind and soul-numbing wage-labor so they can buy objects and experiences. As far as they are concerned, their lives are fine as is. This is something early capitalists were well aware of, and much ink was spilt trying to solve this “problem.” The history of this process is described in detail in E.P. Thompson’s classic The Making of the English Working Class. The would-be “working class” fought the new order every step of the way, from the medieval enclosure laws to Taylorism in the early 20th century and on. You really have to isolate a person from others before the pleasure they can derive from consuming products and services is appealing to them. People had good lives, the supposed brutishness, nastiness, and shortness notwithstanding, in the days before capitalism, and in their relatively contented state couldn’t be convinced to work and consume. Their lives had to be impoverished before they would join the ranks of the workers, and the primary impoverishment was in the social realm: love, a universal condition of life for 99% of our species existence, had to be diminished and made scarce. In a world peopled by healthy, undamaged human beings, no one would work at anything other than tasks they enjoy for a minute longer than it took them to fill their belly. No one would wear their weapons and armor once the two sides have clashed, some young people got to show off their prowess and coordination, and some booty has been acquired to show the folks back home. What sane person kills other living beings for fun?
When you break up human communities that grow naturally, and make everyone starved for love all the time, you are well on your way to ruling the world. This may well be a paradox built in to human history, making civilization all but inevitable, and healthy human communities all but doomed. As Fredy Perlman describes in Against His-Story, Against Leviathan, when a group of people adopts agriculture and implements of war, their neighbors are faced with the choice of being conquered and made into slaves, or resisting and soon discovering that to resist successfully, they must become like the aggressors. Getting as far away as possible from the civilized madmen hasn’t been an option for some time, as people have occupied every habitable place on earth.
By contrast, healthy human beings have no need to prove themselves the best in the world at anything. They are not prone to obsessive-compulsive behaviors or perfectionism, and needless to say, have no unaddressed anger issues or the kinds of insecurities which make members of our society such easy pray for advertisers and cult leaders. They tend to consider any idea on the basis of whether it will be fun, work only until they are sated and have no concept of accumulating wealth except to get through winter in cold climes. They identify themselves with their group, and think in terms of group welfare when making decisions. This doesn’t mean they are less uniquely individual than we are, in fact, there is greater possibility for creativity and individual expression in the framework of a healthy community. As Wendell Berry said in Life is a Miracle, “Individualism, in present practice, refers to the supposed “right” of an individual to act alone, in disregard of other individuals. (p.42) For members of functional communities, individualism is the freedom to be who you want, sure that your choices will be accepted by the rest of the members. Raised to respect others and be confident of their respect, you would never want something that would damage the people you love, and they would never think to tell you your unique take on life is unacceptable.
Walking Dead makes me cry because I, like so many others in our broken society, see myself in the survivors of the zombie apocalypse, while at the same time desperately wanting to be a part of a community like the one shared in by the characters in the show. I think that the show’s creators understand this. The characters’ survival is always a common project, and to be cast out of the group is usually as good as receiving a death sentence. That’s what it means to survive as a human being: humans don’t function one at a time. We are social animals, and in seclusion, we die. In the few episodes I’ve seen, the fact that to cast a person out of the group is as good as killing them has been repeatedly stressed. This is a basic truth of our species’ existence on this planet: an exile is as good as dead even if they survive physically, because we are not made to live apart from others of our kind. It’s striking that this basic condition of being human has been all but forgotten today. Rick continues, “But I won’t have to, because you’re going to change. Starting now.” He’s optimistic, but talking to a small group of people, he can afford to be: his opinion will be heard, considered, and perhaps heeded. I’m in no position to be optimistic, but maybe someday I will be. At the very least I have some idea of what I’m looking for, and what I’m not looking for. It’d be interesting to find out whether the Walking Dead people have had much response from viewers seeing what I see in the show: a community determined to survive together in a world where a lone person has no chance.