Death: Borderland to Bridge
Death is the ultimate architect of border and can draw people closer together or push them apart. David Newman’s language in his article, “The lines that continue to separate us,” can clarify and expand our conception of death and our reaction to it as it is subsequently portrayed in the movie Babel, directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu. Newman in concurrence with Babel helps us to see death from a new perspective: that dying and/or death can be an impetus that sends people into a borderland, one that can potentially lead to a bridge of acceptance toward the unknown. Babel displays a grand narrative of acute personal experiences, interwoven with death’s borders, and detailed through striking visual elements. This paper will specifically address how an American couple progress through the borderlands created by the death of their baby to eventually access a bridge of emotional healing.
Newman, though writing of global borders, could just as easily be speaking to how people react to death. Understanding his different views of border as barrier, borderland, or bridge, and then relating these terms to the effects of dying and death revealed in Babel, creates the possibility for greater communication and empathy, which then leads to growth. Newman says, “traditionally, borders constitute barriers” and that, as a result, “the other side of the border becomes partially invisible and unknown” (152). This is similar to how death is most often viewed in modern western society; we do everything possible to establish a barrier between life and death because we are afraid of dying and losing our loved ones. The barriers we erect range from an obsession with youthfulness, to avoidance of the discussion of death, to painting corpses so that they appear as life-like as possible. Furthermore, Stephen and Ondrea Levine, leaders in the conscious dying movement, state that when “we examine our fear of death we see in it a fear of the moment to follow, over which we have no control. In it is a fear of impermanence itself, of the next unknown changing moment of life” (9). However, being stuck in this fear is damaging to ourselves, other beings, and our world because we are constantly fighting against a natural process. This fear of the unknown and impermanence inhibits our ability to deal well with our own dying or that of someone else, and thus hinders quality of life as well.
The second aspect of border that Newman conveys is that of borderland, and death can be a catalyst that propels people into a borderland. Newman says that, “Traditional ideas of borderland and frontier are related to notions of ‘transition zone’” (151). This same idea of borderland as related to transition zone can be found around the concept of death as well. For example, in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, Sogyal Rinpoche says that, “Bardo is a Tibetan word that simply means a ‘transition’ or a gap between the completion of one situation and the onset of another” (106). Thus, bardo and borderland encompass any situation where we are suspended for a varying length and duration of time. Anyone who has ever spent extended time with a dying person (or a companion animal) experiences this sensation of transitional space. In fact, the emergence of hospice care over the past several decades exemplifies the growing acknowledgment that the dying and their families need support through the various manifestations of borderland that develop around death and grief.
Borderland becomes bridge when we choose to step out of the transitional space and consciously cross into the next unknown moment rather than remain stuck or retreat. Newman says that bridges are “the mechanisms through which borders can provide the point of contact and transition,” however, his description leaves the concept of bridge rather vague (150). I would expand upon his description and say that soothing, healing bridges manifest as a result of the desire to go beyond the transitional zone, or as a result of one’s conscious acceptance of the bridge as the next step. Taking the step forward into this space of healing is described with clarity when Rinpoche says, “when we accept death, transform our attitude toward life, and discover the fundamental connection between life and death, a dramatic possibility for healing can occur,” not only for our bodies “but our whole being” (31). Without a transition zone of some kind, there can be no bridge, and, more importantly, without full acceptance of the situation that created the transition zone and continues to influence our existence within it, there can be no healing bridge.
In Babel, when Susan and Richard’s baby died, they initially experienced the sudden tragedy as a barrier. Susan felt that Richard blamed her because he ran away. They were both scared of the death, the loss, and how it changed everything. Newman speaks of this kind of barrier in his discussion of how the borders became restrictive and securitized after the terror of 9/11 (149). When we experience an unexpected and significant death, our fear and lack of preparation in how to handle the situation can be overwhelming, causing us to withdraw into a protective shell, to run away, or to blame someone else, all of which can be barriers to healing. Our modern attitude about death, which is usually based upon a refusal to accept the natural impermanence of life, often leaves us hanging off the edge of a cliff for, as Kubler-Ross and Kessler say in their book On Grief and Grieving, “The suddenness thrusts us into a new, abnormal world” (195). Without time to prepare, people are often unable to comprehend the shock of sudden death and can become stuck, unable to consciously move into the unknown that is life-after-loss. In the case of Susan and Richard, the sudden death of their baby thrust them into a disconnected emotional borderland as well as a foreign country. However, the arid, rocky, and dusty setting unfortunately reflects the dryness of their relationship, how its vitality has drained away; the landscape is also “void of a primary red,” and it is easy to see that void as a lack of passion in the emotional distance between Richard and Susan (Babel Featurette). Morocco is the physical space in which they experience their dysfunctional relational borderland; it is the container wherein their outer and inner journeys are merging into a “new, abnormal” relationship.
While Richard and Susan are within the physical transition zone—the barren landscape that mirrors their inner struggles to adjust to the loss of their child and the damage to their relationship—Susan reaches out. Newman describes this part of the journey as undergoing “a process of acclimatization and acculturation as he/she moves through the zone of transition, so that the shock of meeting the ‘other’ is not as great as he/she feared” (151). Susan is angry at Richard for leaving her when the baby died, for blaming her, and yet she realizes that he is trying to make amends. Without looking at him sitting next to her on the bus, Susan reaches over and clasps his hand. He responds by brushing his thumb against her skin and gazing at her profile. The viewer can sense a bridge forming. Susan is seeing that their changed relationship is “the new norm with which [she] must learn to live” and she is showing Richard that she is willing to meet him (Kubler-Ross, Kessler 25). The poignancy of this scene is highlighted by close-ups of their faces and hands in a slow series of shot/reverse shots, and emphasized further by the non-diagetic soundtrack of the oud strings plucked slowly one at a time. As Gustavo Santaolalla described it, “the oud became…our storyteller,” and this scene evokes that narrative voice with exquisite precision (Babel Featurette). However, Richard and Susan don’t quite reach the bridge because within a minute Susan is shot. Now, instead of moving onto a bridge, they find themselves propelled by the prospect of death into a deeper level of the borderland.
While in a transition zone, people often experience further portals that lead them into deeper relationship with self and others. It is into this deeper layer that Susan and Richard find themselves cast after Susan is shot. Newman made an ambiguous reference to this layering when he said that borderlands “vary in their intensity” (150). From this moment forward, Susan and Richard are both at a deeper, more intense level of the emotional borderland. As their tour guide Anwar takes them into his village, the setting within this deeper layer of transition is elementally opposite to the previous one in many ways, sharpening the contrast. For example, whereas their earlier journey had been through a sharp, bright, rocky landscape, now Susan is carried into a dark, cave-like room, where a wrinkled old woman sits calmly on a rug, clothed in an archetypal blood-red garment. The first setting was comprised of fire and air, the combustible elements of overt transformation, while the new one envelops us in the element of earth where grounding and deep connection can occur. The shadowy setting aligns our psyche with how Marion Woodman, a renowned Jungian therapist, envisions death as another birth canal, and, certainly, Anwar’s grandmother, who has “centuries of desert in her expression” exudes the patient wisdom of one having seen both birth and death many times (Arriaga 68). Further, traditionally, wise old women assisted in both birth and death for they were the ones in charge of these sensate borders, and the room Susan is in could be either womb or tomb for her.
It is within this dark space, where their fears initially escalate, that Richard and Susan finally experience unanimity around the question of Susan’s survival. Newman, in what could have been direct commentary on this couple’s situation, asks: “At what point does a borderland become transformed from a place of mutual antagonism to a place of transition? Often, the bricks constituting the wall have to be dismantled one by one” (152). Now that Susan and Richard are immersed together in a struggle for Susan’s survival, we see the dismantling happen between them. Susan wakes up and says, “If I die, you take care of the kids … don’t you ever leave them again,” and Richard promises her that he won’t (Babel). Within the dire honesty of this borderland exchange, the remaining “bricks” crumble.
Once a wall crumbles, we can see more clearly that we are in a transitional space and the potential for bridge-building becomes real. For Richard and Susan, a basic human need, a simple bodily function, becomes the physical representation of a bridge into emotional healing. Susan’s humor and Richard’s compassion unite them and they are at last able to communicate and really hear each other. Richard says, “when Sammy died, I ran, I was scared” to which Susan replies, “I was scared, too; it wasn’t my fault, he wasn’t breathing” (Babel). When Richard confirms to Susan that it wasn’t her fault, we know they’ve begun healing. This joint breakthrough into acceptance is one of Kubler-Ross’s five stages of dying and grief (24). The experiences of Richard and Susan since they arrived in Morocco have been opportunities to help them “move toward an emotional acceptance of death” and the difficult circumstances surrounding it (Rinpoche 33). Transition is not a point or a place of steadfast inertness, but an existence in movement where our minds or bodies or hearts are in the process of change, usually specific to a situation. The transition is the movement of change happening over a wall or around it, a way of moving beyond what we have experienced as a barrier, or even a bridge, because the bridge has no healing value unless we step onto it from out of a space of transition; the bridge is the construct of acceptance, not the movement.
The heart of the movie Babel is how it portrays narrative, sometimes vividly and at other times hauntingly, and it is through these stories that additional clarity around death emerges. Newman’s thoughts on narrative corroborate the tales of dying and grieving so beautifully expressed in Babel when he says, “it is at the level of narrative, anecdote and communication that borders come to life” (152). Seeing Babel through the lens of borders and death can be a valuable, albeit vicarious, learning experience. We realize how death can be a great teacher—a great portal into traversing borderland and bridge—because it is our common denominator, and cannot be controlled no matter how much we might delude ourselves into thinking that it can be.
By participating fully and openly, with complete awareness, in the transitional aspects created by experiencing death all around us, we can embrace its wisdom instead of fearing its darkness. Accepting death and impermanence, instead of trying to deny them, creates healing. Therefore, learning to view death as a process, as the impetus into a transition zone through which we can help each other, is vital to renewing our integrity toward compassionate living in the world. In this same way, to welcome global borderlands as an opportunity for growth and change means we are more likely to see the possibilities of how to build bridges that heal global conflict.__________________________________________________
Arriaga, Guillermo. Babel. IMSDb, n.d. Web. 23 Nov. 2013. < http://www.imsdb.com/scripts/Babel.html >.
Babel. Dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu. Perf. Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett. Paramount Vantage, 2006. DVD.
Babel Featurette (Behind the Scenes of Babel). IMDb, n.d. Web. 23 Nov. 2013. < http://www.imdb.com/video/imdb/vi2334916889/ >.
Kubler-Ross, Elisabeth, and David Kessler. On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Loss. New York: Scribner, 2005. Print.
Levine, Stephen, and Ondrea Levine. Who Dies? An Investigation of Conscious Living and Conscious Dying. New York: Anchor Books, 1989. Print.
Newman, David. “The lines that continue to separate us: borders in our ‘borderless’ world.” Progress in Human Geography 30, 2 (2006): 143-161. April 2005, Denver. Edward Arnold (Publishers) Ltd, 2006. Print.
Rinpoche, Sogyal. The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. New York: HarperOne, 2002. Print.
Woodman, Marion. Interview by Tami Simon. “Listening to Our Deepest Wisdom.” SoundsTrue: Insights at the Edge. Sounds True Inc., December 2012. MP3.