Life (and Death) Lessons Learned from "The Walking Dead"

"The Walking Dead" thrives because it's more about the living than the dead

Posted Dec 31, 2016

"You walk outside, you risk your life. You take a drink of water, you risk your life. Nowadays you breathe and you risk your life. You don’t have a choice. The only thing you can choose is what you’re risking it for."  - Hershel Greene

The Walking Dead comic book and television series thrive because they are more about the living than the dead. The title itself has more to do with the struggle for the living to retain their own humanity in an apocalyptic situation where life is fleeting, death is always around the corner, and people face threats from both the living and the undead.

What does The Walking Dead say about real life?

1. People are the problem. "Fight the dead, fear the living." The series tagline sounds cynical. Unlike walkers, living human beings have complex motivations. They can lie, cheat, steal, and betray. They can set elaborate traps for diverse reasons.

2. Trauma is complicated and posttraumatic reactions are diverse. A lot of people expect trauma reactions to follow set patterns. They vary greatly, though. Characters on The Walking Dead have, quite realistically, showed a diverse range of reactions. A single character can demonstrate an ongoing series of changes. One might go psychotic while another collapses under the stress and yet another finds strength she or he never knew awaited inside. When the main group of characters reach Alexandria, both Sasha and Carol show a full set of symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (except that it's been less than a month since their most recent traumas) even though they each demonstrate different PTSD symptoms.

3. EmpathyFeel for others. By getting readers and viewers to feel for characters, fiction can sometimes help people develop greater empathy for living human beings. Combat veterans who have come home to find themselves surrounded by friends and relatives who simply don't know what they've experienced can discuss the fictional characters' experiences and, perhaps indirectly, open dialogue about their own feelings. 

4. Don't wait to relate. Several characters have hesitated to embark on relationships or patch things up in relationships they already have. Rick takes his time reaching a comfort level with Lori and starts to feel better about her, but he never gets to say so before she's gone. He loses his mind. In both the TV series and the comic books, other characters hesitate to get close because they might get hurt, only to find themselves mired in regret when all opportunity to connect to that other person are gone.

5. People are the solution. Cooperation is key. As the character Abraham Ford put it, "You find some strong, like-minded comrades and you stay stuck together like wet on water. We need people. The more the better. We need each other, partner. Even with all that gear on your shoulder, you won't last a night. Not by yourself." It's about much more than strength in numbers. Even the few people capable of staying alive on their own lose focus, suffer impaired social skills, and have greater difficulty doing more than merely exist. People need people to do more than merely exist. They need each other to be fully alive.

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