AMC’s hit television series, The Walking Dead, is probably not a go-to resource for many Rhode Island Catholic readers in search of spiritual insights. The show, as its title hints, takes place in a world in which some sort of disease causes corpses to come back to life — just enough to wander the Earth in search of still-living people to consume.
In keeping with the entire zombie genre, it’s gory fare. Also in keeping with similar stories, its monsters are more creepy than scary. For the most part, they stagger along making easily identifiable groaning noises. They aren’t quick or stealthy. What they are is relentless, and the dread that they instill has mainly to do with their status as harbingers of the end of the world.
Zombies, as a threat, turn out to be relatively manageable; the dread comes from the question: What now? A central theme of the series is the problem of what meaning there could possibly be in a world overrun with such creatures.
In a world with little hope for the future of civilization, what could be the point of struggling to survive for just another day? In actuality, civilization would not have ended, in such circumstances, but would have merely gone back to an earlier stage. The zombies would simply be a new environmental hazard for mankind to master, and over generations, we could rebuild.
But that’s not where the characters were expecting to find meaning in their lives, and the success of the show suggests that a great many of us find their reaction familiar. Throughout the developed world, we’ve essentially all become the rich young man who goes away sad when Jesus tells him to sell all of his possessions and give the money to the poor. “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle,” Jesus tells his disciples in Matthew 19:24, “than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
Even those of us who struggle to get by from paycheck to paycheck — or even without regular income — might look at that needle with trepidation, in our days. Although our society has not yet managed to bring prosperity to everybody, the material world offers straightforward paths promising purpose. We’ll never be satisfied by material goods, of course, but we can see them in the store, and we have a general sense of what we need to do to get them.
In that light, the dread of The Walking Dead is almost totally inverted. In one of the first seasons of the show, a pregnant woman — abortion pills close at hand — wonders what sort of life her child could expect. Even under the most optimistic predictions, the child could never dream of being a movie star or even a well-paid middle manager with a house in the suburbs and the latest in entertainment gadgetry.
But we’re like the rich young man, indeed, if we would despair about the difficulty of finding meaning in a daily battle to help people survive and in the need to restart civilization as the first generations of a new era.
If the point of your life is to move yourself and others closer to God — to find the beauty and awe in His creation — then even the zombie apocalypse could not erase your purpose. Indeed, Jesus’ lesson following the rich young man’s departure is that finding purpose becomes easier when life is simplified by poverty.
What’s intriguing about The Walking Dead is that — far from making meaning an impossible puzzle — its world is one in which the puzzle actually becomes solvable, at least by those who can let go of the safe, comfortable world they thought they had inherited. Perhaps, deep down, that is the truly terrifying aspect of such stories: that we might be forced to affirm our beliefs and to define purpose at a fundamental level and maybe to fall short of what seems to be required of us.
Even more terrifying is the realization that we can always be the first generation of a new era if we just affirm our beliefs and try to do what they require of us. Such fears are worth facing — with or without the aid of stomach-churning special effects.