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The Walking Dead: Facing death in “Nebraska”

In “Nebraska,” Rick has followed Hershel to a bar in town, where Hershel confesses his world has been turned upside down. 
Hershel: I didn’t want to believe you. You told me there was no cure, that these people were dead, not sick. I chose not to believe that. But when Shane shot Lou in the chest and she just kept coming, that’s when I knew what an ass I’d been, that Annette had been dead long ago and I was feeding a rotten corpse! That’s when I knew there was no hope. And when that little girl came out of the barn, the look on your face—I knew you knew it too. Right? There is no hope. And you know it now, like I do, don’t you. 
He pauses. 
Hershel: There is no hope for any of us. 
Rick: Look, I’m done. I’m not doing this anymore, cleaning up after you. You know what the truth is? Nothing has changed. Death is death, it’s always been there, whether it’s from a heart attack, cancer, or a walker—what’s the difference?! You didn’t think it was hopeless before, did you?

The Walking Dead returned last Monday and “Nebraska” places us in the aftermath of the zombie massacre at the barn, where farm-owner Hershel had been keeping family members who had become zombies in hopes of finding a way to cure them. Hershel’s worldview has been toppled and Rick struggles to put things back together so his people (including his son and pregnant wife) can continue to stay at the farm, a haven from the zombie apocalypse on its borders. The episode continues this season’s front burner themes of death and hope—and once again brings God-talk into these open spaces.

It’s well documented that our culture is one that pretty much fears, hides and flees from death. We do all we can to delay it or, at the very least, give ourselves the illusion that we can avoid it. We often talk about death in terms of “if” we die rather than “when” when die. While death is all around us in films, stories, and the news, as Rob Moll puts it in The Art of Dying, we lack “first-hand experience” with it. And this leaves us unprepared to face it when we do encounter it.

I must confess, I get the fear associated with death. It’s not the way things are supposed to be. According to God’s Story, we were created for life in wide open spaces of Love and Glory; death is the hungry arms of the curse that infects us from the day of our birth. One day, it will be no more; it has already been defeated and is on its last legs. But here, in the middle of our Story, it still rips from us the people we love and leaves huge gashes upon an already broken world.

But we lose something when we refuse to confront death: it grows in horror. While it makes me uncomfortable, I’ve grown to respect how The Walking Dead personifies death in a physical form, giving us the chance to face what we’ve allowed it to become in our culture: a rotting horror which we endlessly try to flee, kill, burn or bury. But it keeps on coming. Death eventually comes for us all—for those we love and ourselves. Sometimes it’s sudden, sometimes it’s expected. But it always comes. And there is no cure.

And when we’re finally faced with the reality of death—be it from illness, a first-hand experience, or an existential crises—like Hershel, some of us may find our world shattered. In the darkness, hope seems hard, if not impossible, to find. Rick knows what that feels like, and his response is a helpful one. Death is death. It has always been there—if we had hope before, what is keeping us from it now?

A well-worn companion in darkness is doubt, but doubt is not necessarily a bad thing.  Writing in the context of the disciples’ experience—particularly Thomas—of the shocking and horrific death of Jesus, Mark Buchannon says, “Doubt, when honest, should set us on a quest for that which is true, real, that for which we can give not only our intellectual assent but, even more, that to which we can entrust our very lives.” But doubt, reminds Buchannon, “can never be satisfied:”
No evidence is ever fully, finally enough. Doubt wants always to consume, never to consummate. It clamors endlessly for an answer, and so drowns out any answer that might be given. It demands proof, but will doubt the proof proffered. Doubt, then, can become an appetite gone wrong; its craving increases the more we try to fill it. 
At some point, then, like Rick we must declare “I’m done. I’m not doing this anymore.” At some point, we face the same Jesus that Thomas did, the one who says, “Stop doubting and believe.” At some point, we cry like the father of that sick child, “I choose to believe--help me with my doubt!”

I’ve found helpful some advice Henry Nouwen, who in midst of his own struggles with doubt, writes in The Inner Voice of Love: “You have to begin to trust that your experience of emptiness is not the final experience, that beyond it is a place where you are being held in love.”  We must trust that there is something on the other side of the darkness. We must trust our past experiences that sowed hope in our bones. In God’s Story, death does not win—Love does. Death is not the end, but overcome in tidal waves of Love. The life we have now continues—no, not continues but grows and explodes into something we cannot yet grasp or imagine. In the Light, death loses not only its sting but its horror.

But here, in the middle of the story where death still writhes, grappling with all this is not easy—and that’s another aspect I appreciate about The Walking Dead. Facing death can be messy, painful, dark and unsettling. But, for me at least, it is a big step in stripping it of horror and fear. When we accept the reality of death, the question then becomes how we will deal with it—and that, like “Nebraska,” brings God-talk into open spaces.