The Dead Among Us

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I’ll never forget the day my friend Martin told me he just got diagnosed with cancer. As I sat sad and stupefied across from him over coffee I silently mused over the possibility that this charming old wise man may leave us way too soon. His erudition and idiosyncratic views of life are legendary. He made all of us think twice. Life without Martin was unimaginable. However it wasn’t this grim diagnosis that most alarmed me. When I asked Martin how he felt about the news he just smiled. His response confused me. I didn’t know what to say. So I told him I would pray for him. He asked me not to. This often depressed and inscrutable man frequently left many of us puzzled. Finally Martin revealed that for him the diagnosis was a relief and actually pleased him. I couldn’t imagine what he was saying. His words flew by me in horror. Martin further explained that most of his life has felt empty and meaningless despite the many people who loved him. The prospect of dying relieved him of the profound failure he felt all his life. It was his release. I couldn’t fathom what this older dear man was saying. How could a person who offered so much to others not feel loved himself? Although it was not clear that Martin would die from his cancer I knew that I would be there for him throughout his treatment. What I could not do is bring him back from the dead.

It may shock many of us that some of the most dearly beloved people we know feel emotionally and spiritually dead inside and may have been that way for years. Such dear ones may appear outwardly happy and deservedly accomplished but secretly feel there is no bigger meaning to their existence, no life after death, and no legacy they are leaving to others after they pass from this life. The value of their lives and feelings others have about them may be totally discrepant from the value and feelings they place on their own lives. Despite how much you and I may love them, they may be untouched by love and live outside the tenderness of human relationships. Their lives may be one big tragic secret. They may even wonder if anybody would notice their passing or remember them after they are gone. Oh indeed, such people may live among us and have already been dead for many years. We may have never guessed that they were so unhappy. Perhaps we know people like Martin; perhaps we are one of them.

In any case, my purpose in discussing Martin isn’t to be morbid. My real purpose in describing how some people lead dead lives is to learn from them and apply their lessons to our own lives. Especially in dying Martin had much to teach us about ourselves and our culture in his own idiosyncratic way. It is our deadness, not his, that really deserves scrutiny. The only question really, is whether you and I are willing to learn from the dead who live among us.

How the dead live among us

Some people act dead in apparent ways. We may see them as “dead-heads.” Usually such people are depressed and rarely have enough energy for vigorous activities. Although friendly, they often prefer to be by themselves and seldom show spontaneity or disclose much about themselves. Often others who don’t know their depressive sides may tend to ask, “Did I say something wrong?” when they depressed person just gets up and walks away. People who are apparently dead may be numb to ordinary pleasure and are terribly critical of themselves. They may be easy to spot and are not much fun to be around.

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Most dead people don’t show themselves so clearly. They may be successful and seem to have everything going for them but be horribly empty and despairing on the inside. They may even be fun to be around and yet never show their tragic dark side to others as they feel others will reject them. A famous poem by Edwin Arlington Robinson describes this phenomenon:

“Richard Corey”
Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
“Good-morning,” and he glittered when he walked.

And he was rich—yes, richer than a king—
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.

So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.

Such damage causes us to harden our hearts and cut off others who may try to get close to us.Finally there are those who are partially dead. Active addicts and alcoholics are in this group. A part of them may have a very caring self and another part of them may be cold as ice and sell their souls for a fix. If their addictions are not stopped then they too will run their lives into the ground and hurt anybody close to them. In fact, in this category are people who overdo parts of their lives — work, sports, spending, parenting, electronica, and other healthy activities — all to avoid feeling their feelings. This group is perhaps the largest set of dead-heads. In disowning their turmoil they also disown their humanity and potential for great joy and intimacy with loved ones.

While it could be easy to pass judgment on the dead who live among us there is much we could gain from learning from them. Perhaps the ways we pretend to feel more alive are actually perpetuating the deadness in our families and communities. Perhaps there is deadness inside ourselves we would rather not look at, so we focus on the deadheads among us and not at ourselves. Perhaps we are not ready to accept how being alive can often be a powerless experience. Rather than accept our own powerlessness we may vilify the addicts among us and not see their humanity. The famous Russian novelist Dostoyevsky once said that you can judge a civilization by how it treats its prisoners. Perhaps the same could be said about how our culture treats the dead among us.

Our deadening culture

The main messages of our culture are: don’t have feelings, look out only for yourself, spend like there is no tomorrow and equate money with happiness. Hardly any TV program is without the mandatory drug commercial that promises to promptly relieve us of yet another pain, deal with the feelings we have about the pain and find a way to work through it at a deeper level of our psyche. With disappearing social connections and smaller church attendance we live like an “army of one.” Nonprofit charity organizations and schools have to beg for annual funds. Few of us see how our individual well-being is crucially tied up to the well-being and health of our neighbors. Although we may not live in gated communities we act as if we do. We are cut off from our neighbors. We see spending and consuming as a panacea. After 9/11 President Bush said the best way to fight the terrorists is to go out and spend. More of us are seeing the emptiness in that strategy as personal indebtedness is at an all time high. Unfortunately, having more money preoccupies us with chasing it and managing it properly and takes us away from what really makes life most satisfying — quality family relationships and friendships. You don’t have to be rich to be in love or express love; love is free.

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Psychological roots of living a dead life

Some of us have been hurt in growing up years and adult lives by abuse, neglect and unstable personal relationships. The very people who were supposed to love and protect us were the very ones who betrayed our trust and injured us beyond what we care to remember and in ways we may not be able to articulate. Such damage causes us to harden our hearts and cut off others who may try and get close to us as we promise ourselves, “I’ll never let anybody get close enough to hurt me again.” Unfortunately, in cutting others off we also deaden ourselves. We believe that feeling anything would only increase the danger of reexperiencing past hurts that overwhelm us. So we stop feeling and play dead. When painful feelings and relationships gets cut off all joyful feelings and relationships also get cut off. And we live as a dead person.

Of course our hurt in personal relationships may be so great that we also cut off all relationships to a Higher Power. We may ask ourselves, “Why would I commune with a Greater Good when that Greater Good never protected me?” Unfortunately in rejecting God too many of us throw out the baby with the bath water since God was not the one who hurt us. Actually it is not God we are rejecting; we are really rejecting our potential for self-forgiveness.

Resurrection from the dead

If this article resonates with you I suggest you focus more on yourself and not the dead people around you. Perhaps there is a deadness in you, you would rather not recognize. Personally I believe that resurrection from the dead, although rare, is always possible. Such miracles occur through the magic of love in relationships. You may want to discuss this article with a trusted friend, support group or professional helper and see how it applies to you and use those relationships to become more alive. You may read Who Needs God by Rabbi Harold Kushner for guidance [Editor also recommends, Desiring God by John Piper]. Don’t wait to act. Otherwise you may wind up like my friend Martin who on his deathbed did find some life meaning but wished he hadn’t waited so long to do so. We don’t have all the time in the world.


John H. Driggs, LICSW, is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in St. Paul and co-author of Intimacy Between Men (Penguin Books, 1990). He can be reached at 651-699-4573.

This article first appeared in the July 2008 issue of The Phoenix Spirit. We may earn commissions if you click on some of the links on this page – at no cost to you. 

Last Updated on November 24, 2021

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