You’re Already Dead

25 Apr

At Smiles Entertainment Center in Milford, Connecticut (now closed), there once stood a Japanese arcade game called Fighting Mania: Fist of the North Star. Players donned faux boxing gloves and hit small, sturdy bags that’d light up in front of a screen, battling ever-stronger enemies in some silly, forgettable storyline.

Every dumb detail presented an excuse to hit things really fast, really hard. I had some fun with it. But whenever I lost the game, as I inevitably did, I heard some puzzling words. While I fumbled for more quarters, the narrator always exclaimed:

“You’re already dead!”

Poor translations aside, there’s a poignancy in this uncommon assembly of words. The intonation didn’t suggest disappointment in my skills (i.e., “I can’t believe you’re already dead; you suck at this game.”). Rather, it was more matter of fact (i.e., “You are dead. Yes, you actually are.”). The “already” indicated I was mistaken in my assumptions: I thought I’d die in the future, but here it is, right now, surprise! I’m dead already.

There’s a potency to this idea, not merely of the immanence of our death, which appears in so many kinds of thoughtful reflections, religious and secular alike, but of the present state of our death. It plays a critical role in the Nag Hammadi text, The Treatise on the Resurrection, in which the narrator writes to his pupil, Rheginos, in order to calm his concerns about life after death. Turning the worry about death’s inevitability inside-out, the unnamed author writes:

For if he who will die knows about himself that he will die – even if he spends many years in this life, he is brought to this – why not consider yourself as risen and (already) brought to this?

What would it mean to live as if one were dead already? Is this a useful technique to quell anxiety, honest in its attitude about the impermanence inherent in all life? Or is it grotesque, denying the very freedom that death demarcates but never dominates? Is it liberating or limiting? Or both?

I’m a fan of the idea myself. There’s a usefulness in sitting with this strange paradox that pushes against our understanding of ourselves: how can I be dead, too? I’m alive. What can it mean to be both?
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