SPIRITUAL SOAP: Weird & Güd - When Did We Decide to Die Alone?
Phone-a-friend not available.
Before we were The Black Sheep, we were a newsletter named Spiritual Soap. Please enjoy this article from our history!
I enjoy research too much and I’m a shameless critic. Weird & Güd is the conjoining of those misanthropic qualities into something useful: fascinations neatly packaged together for you every week (some hermit-ism required after all).
Death is more certain than life. We can’t guarantee that we will live even another day, but we can always depend on the certainty of our inevitable death.
Humans have been understanding death through rituals for at least 100,000 years, which is the age of the oldest organized burial site. That site, Qafzeh in Isreal, contained skeletons in coffins, some holding items placed with them, like deer horns. Scattered around the cave were painted seashells.
Even in our most primitive era, humans recognize death as something important, something mysterious, and something weird.
Throughout history and culture, humans invented rituals to make sense of the unknowable — non-existence. Whether it was the Egyptian myths imagining an underworld where the dead reside, the complex and public mourning rituals of Victorian society, or the lavish and layered stages the Greeks took in sending their dead down the river Styx, death has always been as real to us as life.
Or rather, it was. Across many cultures and eras, death had a name and face, often taking the form of deities because it was as real a presence as the neighbor outside your door. Without modern medicine to cure us and modern society to protect us, death was tragic, but never rare. Dead parents, dead children, dead leaders, dead enemies — whether through battle or sickness, death was always near.
We now expect to live far beyond the age an average human ever reached in the entirety of our history. As recent as 1950, the world’s average age was 48 — today it’s 72.
Death no longer lingers at our door; it’s not even allowed on the property.
Yet, no good deed goes unpunished. Pushing death out of everyday life was an incredible achievement, but one that came at a cost. Death isn’t a part of modern life; it’s something that happens to the old and the sick, both on the fringes of society.
Death is no longer a mysterious and unpredictable force, but an option.
When you wake up sick, the fear of death that made sense in a pre-medicine world is now the purview of hypochondriacs. Even a serious diagnosis of a life-threatening illness comes coupled with options for bargaining with death.
When death becomes an option, the rituals that once embraced it become macabre. Anthropologists have long noted the lack of death rituals in the west. Funerals have become one-size-fits-all package deals; drop your dead off at 9 AM and come back after work to mourn during your allotted 6:45 PM ceremony slot. Next.
While the frequency of death has shrunk, discomfort with death has grown. The average person doesn’t often encounter a stranger’s dead body nor a dead body disfigured by a violent death. In their caskets, our dead are prepared for departing by having every trace of death banished.
It’s hard to imagine what we’d do if dropped into the 14th century surrounded by death and not a therapist in existence to manage our trauma.
The Day of the Dead, 1859, by William-Adolphe Bouguereau
We are youth-obsessed culture, mocking the older generations while sipping the latest anti-aging green juice elixir. There is no dignity in aging and death; instead, we hide our old and sick in nursing homes and hospital wards where they can work on solving that pesky problem of death out of view.
Our family members no longer die and are tended to in our own homes. The young man who's seen a comrade die beside him in war is not the rule, but the exception. Our children are expected to live long lives and anything else is a tragic anomaly. Modern society has dominated death like no other time in history has. In our death-censored society, the elaborate rituals and community involvement feel like fossils.
In only a century, we solved the most prevalent, ancient, and mysterious problem to ever plague humans — we tamed death.
With death banished to the periphery of our lives, those with the misfortune to experience this ancient, unpredictable event lack the rituals that once helped humans cope. In the place of family members preparing family members is a smiling, suited business owner who answers you at 1-800-We-Take-Ur-Dead. In the place of friends whose culture names their role in our grief as more than a condolence card is Aftermath, the premier death clean up on-demand service.
Modernity’s only death ritual is hiring other people to deal with death so we don’t have to.
We might get convenience and a discount on handling death, but something’s still missing. In western countries with fewer rituals for death, those facing loss also face physical ailments in the year after that loss.
The body truly does keep the score.
Charles Cullen, 1925
You likely have friends, but whether those friends will last through an election season is getting harder to predict. You might believe your friends are people you’ve chosen because of similarities in personality, interests, and values. Really, friendship is more spontaneous than the mental job application we imagine it requires. Your friends are your friends because you both happened to be in the right place at the right time while having enough commonalities to prevent immediately hating each other.
Humans aren’t the only species with friends. Primates also form social bonds that bear all the core qualities of human friendship (besides irrationally hating your exes with you). For animals, friends are who they invest time into and serve as a respite from nature’s brutality.
And really, isn’t a little support amid life’s madness what we’re all looking for in a friend?
Human friendship is a bit more complex than your dog’s friendship with his park buddy, though. A solid human friendship requires a few basic qualities:
A friendship doesn’t last long without a solid foundation built from the qualities above. Yet, even with all these qualities, there’s a certain, less noble need we implicitly ask of our friends-to-be.
Friends are more than just a shoulder to lean on, they’re also a mirror to preen our self-concept in. We often lose friends over life changes that also change us — a healthier lifestyle, a marriage, a child, a career switch. Major changes influence how we see ourselves. We’re no longer the single party girl, we’re the devoted wife; we’re no longer the ultra-competitive business person, we’re the laidback world traveler. As we change, our relationships either change with us or lose their appeal.
The reason your close friends aren’t usually radically different from you isn’t your conscious and careful selection system, it’s our unconscious desire for self-affirmation. When we reach out to friends with a problem, an idea, or just to vent, we’ll get the support we’re looking for much easier from someone that affirms the version of us that’s most important to us.
Friends who affirm our identity and status make the shortlist of best friend candidates.
Just like primate friendships, human friendships aren’t magical connections or carefully vetted job applications — they’re social support for navigating an unpredictable world.
Not pictured: the goth clownfish that was kicked out of this friend group.
Our friend may have always been kind and dependable, but when our primary identity shifts and our friend doesn’t, whether it’s our marriage or interests, that satisfying self-affirmation our friendship once provided subsides. When our friend doesn’t help us see ourselves the way we now want to be seen, that friend no longer feels so friendly.
Once our friend no longer fits into the version of ourselves we see — the Christian, the criminal, the activist, the addict, the Zen master, the mother — the mirror they once held up for us is cracked. When the primary bonding identity of a friendship dissolves, there may still be the reciprocity and respect required for that friendship to exist, but if it contradicts our new self-concept, we’ll start looking for friendship that doesn’t.
Our self-concept is changing as quickly as we can refresh our newsfeed. While the changes our friendships traditionally navigated were life stages like marriage, children, or career changes, today our friendships are navigating idea changes.
With new ideas about how we should exist in our peak-politicization culture, the constant changes to how we see ourselves strains not only friendships, but family relationships too. Seeking an external source of self-affirmation, we feel shame and alienation when friends and family don’t reinforce our self-concept, but contradict it. Instead of being moral or simply “right,” contradiction complicates us; we become merely a single side of a messy situation, not the clear path to righteousness we want to believe.
When friendship evolved to offer stability in the chaos of nature, it’s no wonder more people are walking away from any friendship that contradicts their sense of self. Yet, politics are an abstraction, only a collection of ideas about how another abstraction — society — should function.
Nature is not abstract — illness, death, birth, fear, pleasure, pain — these are the unceasing realities that friendship evolved to support us through.
Even among the unsophistication of animals, those with stronger social networks live longer. As modernity shifts how we define ourselves, we must also define what our modern friendships are meant to do.
I hope this makes your week a little weirder and a little güder. Now go forth, be weird, and above all, be güd.
I sit alone at a desk biting my nails to bring you every edition of Spiritual Soap. Is it worth it? Don’t tell me, show me.