SUZIE: What do you believe?
GWEN: It’s stupid, but I always sort of think, like, you know, white light and all that. And I think of my Gran. Like she’ll be there waiting for me. The smell of carbolic.
SUZIE: Your faith never left primary school.
GWEN: So what’s out there?
SUZIE: Nothing. Just nothing.
Death surrounds us. If we are lucky, those of us in the developed world who have enough economic stability and access to health care can perhaps keep death at bay for a while. However, eventually death comes for all living things-plants, animals, etc but humans have the additional capacity of being able to contemplate and reflect on what it means to die. As far as we know, animals don’t necessarily live with that kind of fear and anxiety, at least not to the same extent (this is not to say animals don’t grieve for the dead-there is evidence that some do) but it is humans that have an obsession with death that often leads to constantly reflecting on it in order to avoid it or to pretending that death does not exist or is some far off event in the future. On the occasions when death can’t be avoided we develop notions that can help lessen the pain little. One such notion is the idea of an afterlife. Ideas about the afterlife vary. But in popular Christian understanding there is a heaven and hell. Heaven is a comforting place, where we can be reunited without loved ones. Hell, is a place of eternal torment.
In They Keep Killing Suzie, Suzie points out that the faith Gwen has is still childish. It is the faith of someone hoping that something exists but not having truly grappled the meaning of death. The faith Gwen discuses is one where the afterlife becomes a comforting notion that simply exists to lessen the pain of grief. I personally don’t know if there is an afterlife or not, but I remember vividly as a teenager, how heaven was described in my conservative, Pentecostal church. Heaven was a literal place (reserved of course only for those who ascribed to our understanding of Christianity) where the pain and suffering of this life would be erased and forgotten. The idea of heaven did help many of us survive-at least for a while- a life filled with abuse, poverty, and illness. Heaven became the answer to what often felt like a meaningless existence and it served as the promise of justice in a world where injustice was rampant. The problem with the heavy emphasis on the idea of a literal heaven-is that it devalues life in the here and now and it cheapened the pain and suffering that goes on. Heaven becomes a pat answer for whenever people struggle with loss or question a God who would allow such pain and suffering to occur. While some find the whole idea of an afterlife problematic, I remain agnostic about its existence. What strikes me as problematic is the obsession with heaven to the determent of living here and now. The afterlife becomes a convenient excuse, for example, to not fight against injustice, because in heaven those who have borne the brunt of injustice will be vindicated while those partaking and benefiting from justice will be condemned to hell. The idea of an afterlife becomes an endorsement for the status quo: “Don’t worry about the injustice in this world, because God will take care of it in the next.”
I find such an impulse to obsessively focus on an afterlife understandable. Because if there isn’t an afterlife then what is there? While the torchwood gang is going through Suzie’s stuff, Tosh remarks:
TOSH: That’s all we are, in the end. A pile of boxes.
Such a notion is scary. The idea of nonexistence is frightening enough but to think that we might be forgotten or reduced to some material stuff fills one with anxiety. Suzie, after being bought to life by Gwen and the resurrection glove, makes several references to how the torchwood members have simply gone on with their lives.
We fear being forgotten. And I understand why holding on to the notion of an afterlife is so attractive. It is bad enough when death comes at the end of a long, well lived life, but what happens when a baby is born still born? What does one make of a life that did not have a chance to truly begun? Or what about a life cut short during the prime of life, or just when the person was about to make a turn for the better? The idea of heaven, doesn’t totally eradicate the pain of the loss but provides hope that perhaps the lives of the still born baby, or the young child/adult, or the drug addict had meaning.
As someone who cares about justice-I want to believe that if justice is denied in this life-it will be fulfilled in the next. Thinking back on the deaths of all those unarmed men and women who have been killed, or who have died in police custody just within the past year by police officers, has me crying out for justice. I think of those who were mentally ill and because of poor treatment options and access to healthcare, and poor mental health training for police officers, are dead. Kristiana Coignard, Sandra Bland, Samuel Dubose, Joseph Hutcheson, Christian Taylor, Tamir Rice, and many more have been brutally gunned down by a system where officers are trained to treat every encounter with a citizen as a potential threat. But I can’t allow a hope or a desire for an afterlife to allow me to forget about life here and about my responsibility for fighting for justice now.
GWEN: But if there’s nothing, what’s the point of it all?
SUZIE: This is. Driving through the dark. All this stupid, tiny stuff. We’re just animals howling in the night, because it’s better than silence. I used to think about Torchwood, all those aliens, coming to Earth, what the hell for? But it’s just instinct. They come here because there’s life, that’s all. Moths around a flame. Creatures clinging together in the cold.
The desire to make death less frightening by holding onto the idea of an afterlife can provide people with the comfort needed to work through their loss and grief, but it can also serve as a way to dismiss the necessary work that grieving entails. The idea of the afterlife can serve as an excuse for disregarding this life and for maintaining the status quo. Why work for justice now? Justice will be served in the next life. We want to hold onto an infantilizing faith, where our parent God, will suddenly make everything ok with little work on our part. Suzie’s view on life is a bit pessimistic, and many people of faith will want to reject that characterization of life as simply being one of instinct. But she also speaks to a core truth-that what matters is the here and now-the stupid little things that preoccupy our time. Our work for justice now, matters. We are all going to die, no amount of money or wishful thinking will change that. And yes, we might be forgotten in the future, reduced to a tombstone or to a pile of boxes. But what are we doing with our lives now? How are fighting to make the world a better place now? How do we, who are living, remember our loved ones who have passed before us? How do we give meaning to their lives, no matter how brief or trouble filled? We can’t simply hope that an afterlife exists to give meaning to our lives, we have to try and fashion meaning for our lives in the here and now.