It was 1994 as I traveled home on the 21 Hayes street bus in San Francisco. I was a block from home when we stopped at the corner of Hayes and Webster. As I peered out the window toward the ubiquitous liquor store on the corner, I observed a dead body in the doorway from a botched robbery or a drive-by shooting. As the minutes and hours passed, I was struck by my lack of emotional response. It felt like I should be more impacted by seeing a dead body a block from my house. It was disturbing to think I was so desensitized and that I wouldn’t be moved by the loss of life. I didn’t even reflect deeply upon the family and friends this young man had; there was nothing inside me.
During those days, I did have a nascent spiritual practice but it wasn’t that deep yet. At that time, I was also watching a lot of violence in the movies (i.e., Pulp Fiction) and reading about violence in the media daily (newspapers and magazines). Because of my lack of emotional response from the body, I vowed to stop going to movies that contained violence. I wanted to be more sensitive…not de-sensitized. I placed a high bar for this and maintained that commitment for many years to come. People questioned my commitment and didn’t see how that could help my compassion and empathy to grow. But it did. In the ensuing years, my spiritual practice grew and deepened. I became a practitioner and teacher in the Plum Village tradition (a Zen Buddhist path) and today I have more empathy and compassion.
Twenty-four years later, as I traveled home in my car, I witnessed my second dead body in public. This body lay in the entrance to my place of work – Santa Barbara City College. In the middle of the street. About 100-feet from my office. An intersection I travel through daily. I was not prepared, and I was deeply disturbed. My immediate response was, “FUCK!” — I had to pull over. Call for help. And spend the next 45-minutes sobbing and in tears. Tears of sorrow, anger, frustration, and of memory. The person died as a result of a motorcycle accident. This was very personal for me because I rode a motorcycle daily for 25-years. I stopped riding when my children were young and because friends and acquaintances kept ending up in the hospital or ended up being dead. This death feels so pointless and preventable. Yes, I know people die everyday. Yes, I know that riding a motorcycle doesn’t always mean death. And yet, I know that by not-riding anymore I reduce the probability of being killed in that manner.
My tears today are for the person who died, for the family and friends of that person, for each person who had to witness the accident or the body, and for myself. This year has been very difficult for me and death has often been present in my consciousness. As the late fall and early winter begins, my difficulties have eased but the incident today leaves me raw and sensitive. And so I write to share, to explore and to heal.
In America we are so distant from death and dead bodies. Most of us don’t live in a war zone like those in Yemen or Gaza. I also recall the police violence in Ferguson when Michael Brown’s body lay in the street for four hours. Or when my mother-in-law’s Amtrak train was five hours late because a person jumped in front of the train on Thanksgiving weekend. Death and violence are ever present. And at the same time, it is obscured and hidden except in cases of public violence on American streets.
On an intellectual level, I understand police work. The need to investigate and not touch a crime scene. But on an emotional and human level, it feels so wrong to leave a dead body laying in the street. So inhumane. I certainly don’t have the answers and this writing exercise serves to help me process and explore the emotional landscape that came jarringly into my consciousness 12-hours ago. I do know that we should be disrupted and disturbed when we see a dead body. We should be reminded that a life has ended. We should draw our attention to the family and friends. To send love, compassion, and empathy. And when something could have been prevented, work toward finding solutions that prevent it from occurring again.
Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments.