Last night I watched a documentary on the 2004 Tsunami that killed 250,000 people. The whole scene was absolutely horrifying. I watched as tourists obliviously videoed the receding waters from the shoreline. The beaches became exposed for hundreds of yards, luring people out onto the alien landscape. It was a sight no one had ever seen before and no one was aware of what was happening. To them it was a tide and the landscape was beautiful in its barren rockiness. But soon after, they saw the wall of water heading towards them. Some still stood on the beach watching the wall approach from a mile away, seemingly slow and graceful, but picking up force as it reached shallower water.
Ingrained into my memory forever was a scene that I have witnessed before but was reminded of last night. A group of local women deduce what is happening from the safety of their tall concrete building on the shoreline. They video the tourists and some locals walking out onto the deserted, lifeless landscape. One of the locals says on the video “We should warn the tourists.” They soon start shouting, “Go! Go! Quick! Quick! Run!” as the tourists say to each other, “We should grab our stuff. You keep filming.” It is a beautiful, fascinating, luring scene like the beacon on an angler fish. The power of an amazing wave has not yet been realized by the people on the beach.
Then one of the tourists asks someone, “What is that?”, a question that may have saved his life. Most of the tourists soon start running as the see the wave is not only not weakening, but is gaining strength and speed as it gets closer. But for many of them, it is too late. The wave is pummeling over the previously barren landscape at thirty miles an hour, way too fast for anyone to outrun. And then, when the wave is just a couple hundred yards from shore, a man just sits in a small pool of water as the locals film from above. One of the ladies comments “That guy doesn’t want to move,” and I guess they along with everyone has seen this video deduces the same thing. He abruptly stands as the wave approaches. He looks calm and collected but I imagine his heart was racing. He doesn’t make any attempt at running or escaping the wave. It is an incredible sight that will baffle me forever. Why didn’t he run? Why did he just stand there? We all wonder what was going through his head. I am certain that he was dead within minutes of this footage. But was he certain that would be his fate? Did he know the force or speed of the wave? I am inclined to think he was unaware but would he not be aware when the wave was one hundred yards in front of his face, just seconds away from crushing the life out of him?
When I was a kid I had no concept of death. I have heard that belief in our own immortality is a common theme in children. But this spanned a completely different meaning. I remember the first time I saw evidence of human death. I had been so sheltered. I opened a photo album that my grandfather had made after his return from war. I saw a man’s body torn and hanging from a railing. The album was hidden in the seclusion of a cabinet in my garage, probably to keep it out of reach of us children, but I managed to find it. And when I turned to that page, even at the young age of six or seven, I’ll never forget the lump in my throat that I felt at that instant. After fully grasping what I was looking at, I slammed the album shut and a tear formed at the corner of my eye. I had gone in to grab a basketball so I picked up the ball, wiped the tear away, and ran out, acting as if nothing abnormal had happened.
In person, the first time was at my grandmother’s funeral. I remember avoiding the service, standing outside of the room where her body lay in the open casket. My brother and sister and I were wandering the hallway, oblivious to the fear or awareness of death. I was curious though. I walked by the open door and glanced in to see the top of my grandmother’s body’s face. That was enough. The tears began seeping out and I imagine one of my siblings went to grab my mom. My mom came and comforted me despite the fact that it was her mom who had died. After I let all of my tears out, she asked me if I wanted to go inside, to see my grandmother. She thought it might make me feel better and it did. I looked at the body and analyzed it. Someone who I had known very well was lifeless. What I was looking at was no longer my grandmother and I was fully aware of that fact. That separation helped to comfort me in knowing that the body was not the frightening thing, but instead the lack of the person within it was what confused me.
I wondered about death. I wondered why people could not just fight it. That was my naivete. I always heard the words fight and battle associated with death which gave me the belief that it was a game or a competition. Man versus death and man always had a chance at winning. I thought dying was like giving up. I thought it was like a deep exhalation. I thought people were weak to die and had sort of an anger towards them for leaving sad friends and family behind.
But what I did not realize is that the concept of a fight or winning a battle against death was a concept created by man. Almost everything I am studying for my degree here at Virginia Tech has something to do with life. I learn about life processes. I learn about each system and the cells and molecules composing them. While my knowledge is nowhere near capable of grasping every activity in the human body, it is enough to recognize the body’s fragility.
A year ago, I studied the complex diseases we label under the same headline of cancer. Cancer is a common topic with respect to the battle against death. Everyone thinks they can win against cancer and see it as such an evil disease. What I deduced from months of studying how the cells can divide and grow in an unstoppable fashion is that this is the norm. We have so many processes to keep this from happening but inevitably these processes will fail sometimes. It is like an exam, one that you have prepared extremely well for. Take the SAT for example. Rarely do you hear of anyone getting a perfect score. But day after day, our body gets a perfect score in the test of preventing cancer. That is a result of evolutionary pressure. Those who did not get perfect scores died and those with the biological mechanisms to prevent it survived. But sometimes, typically late in life, our body gets less than a perfect score and with that come some tremendous consequences.
I have often been told by older people how I will be when I grow up. First off, nothing frustrates me more than someone telling me how I am going to be. Their prediction may be what happens, but what is the point of living if it is all scripted and predictable? The thing that makes it exciting is that nobody knows. I was once told that I would grow to be more afraid of death and more appreciative of life. But what is in fact true is that my beliefs strongly satisfy both of those. I think that because of my education about the complexity of life, I can better respect it. I realize how amazing of a process it is and that it is truly overwhelming that it can exist. And with the knowledge of its complexity, I believe I can better be aware of how it comes to an end. It is not a battle lost. It is simply oxygen lost. It is not a battle because we will always lose. It is a genocide. The existence of life itself is a genocide. It is not a David versus Goliath metaphor. Instead it is a declawed kitten with four broken legs versus Goliath.
In two weeks I am going to Burlington, Vermont to compete in the Olympic Distance Triathlon National Championships. I am going there because I think I have a chance at doing really well. It is a competition, one that I think I stand a chance at placing high in. If I thought I were going to get my ass handed to me, I would not be going. So how does that translate to life? In life, death’s name is already at the top of the results list and the competition could be decades away. Why even bother if I know I am going to lose? That is where the metaphor and attitude towards life versus death fails. And that is a fundamental reason we should completely abandon those analogies and that attitude.
But there is another class of people heading up to Burlington. They have never been to Vermont and hear it is beautiful this time of year. They are not big fans of enormous amounts of voluntary pain but love to be active. They will not win this race and the thought has never even crossed their minds. But they love this sport and they love the people they meet and the sights they see. The fact is, we are not competitors with death. We can compete with each other all we want but we are all in the end simply sightseers of life. Life as the single most incredible thing I have ever witnessed cannot be constrained by a metaphor so we should not even try. If we take away the metaphor, death can never win because there was never a competition.
To try to sustain life is an obvious goal. But in analyzing what happened on December 26, 2004 with the man who faced the wave, we cannot be critical. He, like many other people were completely unaware of what was going on. Because of that fact, the question is not why did he not run initially. He thought it was a beautiful, enormous wave that would stop at the shoreline like the rest of the waves that day. But last night I knew the answer, or at least what I can propose as the answer, to why he did not run in the last moments. None of us will ever know for sure. He may have been suicidal. But I would like to, if my death is ever as certain as his was in the moments before it, embrace life for all it is and stand there admiring such beauty and power.