Is it based on how much you smile, how cute you are, how much people like you or your age? Most people would avoid answering this question with a clear “Yes”. After all, that would seem a little fickle, and logically ridiculous at the very least. But most people do implicitly believe this.
I witnessed a good demonstration of this in online comments on the Toronto Star’s story about how a Japanese exchange student, who was learning English in Canada, climbed over a barrier at Niagara Falls and slipped over the edge, never to be seen again. The photo accompanying the story shows a young, cute-as-a-button, smiling Ayano Tokumasu. While I agree with some that a 20 year-old should have known better than to do something so dangerous to pose for a photo, I also agree that it’s a tragedy. Of course it is! But the question is: What, precisely, makes it a tragedy? There’s an undertone to the grief and sympathy expressed in the comments that I’ve noticed elsewhere – something that always makes me feel uneasy and exposes something of a shallowness in our society when it comes to valuing life. As I read how several commentors lament the loss of this “pretty/beautiful young woman”, I cringe. What does her appearance or sex have to do with it? I similarly boiled inside when I read, “Japanese are the nicest people you will ever meet”. Among several things I find idiotic about this statement, I guess that means that if she had been, say, British, German or Sudanese he wouldn’t feel quite as bad?
This is not to undermine the fact that a person sadly lost their life before having the chance to live it fully, or to suggest that Ayano shouldn’t be mourned or wasn’t every bit as lovely and therefore worthy of being missed as the article suggests. My point, however, is that the fact that she seemed to have had a bubbly, happy personality is entirely irrelevant, and that a larger discussion is worth having.
The power of imagery deserves some mention here. We see one picture of a person and read a few quotes from peers and instantly we feel we know this person. Out pour the condolences and emotional hyperbole. But a person can be any range of things and embody a variety of characteristics. I know a few people who smile quite a lot but who are simultaneously living stressful lives, are being abused or abusing others, totally oblivious to anything beyond their bubble, hypocrites, etc. – I’m sure you do too. A person may seem happy, but we don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes. We can’t look at one picture and value someone’s life based on the character that that image suggests, or a story we’ve created in our minds around it.
And if a person who is care-free, happy, friendly and kind passes away, obviously people will miss them. But their life isn’t worth more than that of a person who is awkward, sad, depressed, angry or rude. When a young person dies, we feel they were cheated of a full life. It’s a noble sentiment. But if a person who’s 90 years old dies, why is that any less sad? Maybe they had a wonderful life, maybe they survived a lifetime of pain and despair. Maybe they died without dignity. We have an interesting relationship with death. From our human-centric perspective, death is good when it frees someone from suffering or removes a threat – but it’s bad when it means a person we value is no longer alive. Death doesn’t care. When it’s your time, however far along you are or whether it’s your fault or not, the only way out is through, as Jim Morrison so aptly put it.
Let’s chew on this for a minute: What if the subject of this story was an awkward, geeky or creepy 50-something male? Or a juvenile delinquent? If you play with the variables, you could imagine varying responses and emotional reactions. What does this say about us on an individual and collective level?
If we lived in a universe that was subject to some kind of Law that makes people unequal, some being so bad we deem them worthy of death, then they would never have been born in the first place. So… something to think about the next time we encounter a story about someone who’s passed away: Who were they? What did they accomplish? Were they a good person? A bad person? Does any of that matter? Is your life worth more than anyone else’s? Is mine? I don’t care if you’re on death row, a politician, a hero or a saint. My answer will always be, emphatically, no.