Here’s the awful story: Mark Rife, a pastor, saved his wife’s life after she fell off a 75-foot waterfall. She managed to recover, but six months later, she died in her sleep. Mark was devastated. After her funeral, Mark wanted to kill himself, but he recalled a question his wife asked after watching one of their favorite movies, Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet. She asked, “Do you think Romeo would have still killed himself if he’d waited 1,000 days?”
So Mark decided to find out, and gave himself 1000 days, which is approximately three years. The thousands days were up last Thursday. Mark killed himself.
I don’t like suicide. Neither the act nor the way we compartmentalize it. I resent the liberation inherent in the decision. Once you decide to kill yourself, then inherently you have become free and no longer need to. You can go anywhere, do anything, suffer any consequences, and they will never be as bad as what you planned to do to yourself.
We call people who kill themselves victims of suicide. But really, they are perpetrators. They are murderers. Crazy Mark Rife murdered the Mark Rife that all his friends remember as a warm, loving, man.
Mark Rife is a murderer. When people who commit suicide leaves a written explanation of their actions and their grievances against the universe, we call it a “note”. The note is important, almost sacrosanct. The last words of a loved one who was too gentle a soul for this cruel world. The world gets the blame. When a murderer leaves a written explanation, we call it a manifesto. We use that word because murderers who leave a written account of their grievances against the world after hurt innocent people are assumed to be crazy. We are comfortable labeling them crazy, because the alternative would be to accept their actions as the products of rational thought. As acceptable choices.
This dichotomy is maintained in the interests of the loved ones left behind. They want to think that the deceased person they loved was an innocent victim of madness, even if that madness was the victim’s own.
That won’t work here. Mark Rife is a murderer, who left behind a manifesto. Let’s read it.
Mark decided he would create website, “1000 days”, in the spirit of his wife’s hypothetical question, which would chronicle his search for meaning and reason for continuing to live after the death of his wife. The site, now removed by Tumblr, included links, pictures, and videos to whatever Mark considered relevant, important, or interesting during that time. He also left this video explaining the project:
Remember as you watch the video that suicide is never a rational response. No combination of words in any language will make you conclude “Yeah, suicide makes perfect sense.” So to help with maintaining your focus, remind yourself that the person talking in that video is going to kill a human being at the end of the 1000 days.
1000 days is called by some as a chronicle of his life, and by others as a map of his mind in that depressed state. From what I have seen of it, those assessments are all wrong. It seems to me that the moment he started making the site, he had decided to end his life. In that light, the website is a man curating his own suicide.
On the literal level, he is showing us the things that have meaning to him, or that he thinks say meaningful things. But he is arranging them in a way that he thinks will be meaningful to us. So he picks things that have the aura of “spiritual advertising,” of propaganda. What he has collected are example of mass media’s idealized searches for meaning. This is what a search for meaning looks like, to him, and he thinks it is what it will look like to his friends who will see it after he’s gone. And the crazy thing is he is right. Mark Rife knows his audience.
He is making his death a public event, a spectacle in the truest Guy Debord sense of the word. In those last 1000 days, he wasn’t living, or searching for meaning, or grappling with the big existential questions. He was producing content that would convince others that he embarked on a search and came up empty.
Take a close look at the screen shot of his site, and the background of his video. Notice how many of those images are pithy quotes or pop culture images. Movie posters, TV, pop psych books, and celebrities. If he was simply documenting everything he saw in those 1000 days, then we have before us proof that this man did not search particularly hard. If he was collecting what he thought was important, we have proof that Mark had no idea how to distinguish the meaningful from the trivial.
Let me remind you that Mark Rife was a pastor. The existential questions were his job. He counseled other people. I understand that to be a pastor in many American churches requires little more than a soul patch and a practiced smile that is 40% good friend and 60% carny, but let’s be old-fashioned for a moment and assume the occupation of “clergy” involves some intellectual rigor and philosophical introspection. One would think that pastors would know to whom or what to turn in their darkest moments.
A pastor who reads Eat Pray Love and takes it even remotely seriously needs to turn in their Bible and quit. Which is exactly what Mark did, by the way. But we shouldn’t be surprised. He’s looking for guidance in the story of a narcissist who has it all, still wants more, and embarks on a superficial spiritual bar crawl across the hotter and more ex-pat friendly countries of the world before finding what she’s looking for in the arms of a European diamond trader. (Seriously, that’s what happens in Eat Pray Love). I wonder, did he ever counsel one of his parishioners in their crisis of faith to watch Eat Pray Love or Seven Pounds? Did they ask for their church donations back?
I don’t really know what he was thinking when he took his life, or the depths of his despair. But I do know that by packing his “search for meaning” with soft, trivial, cultural pablum, the quest was doomed to failure.
He was a pastor. He must have at least heard of the names of the kinds of people who’ve attacked these problems? Did he turn to Niebuhr, Merton, or any other theological heavyweights for guidance? How about Paul Tillich? Or Martin Buber? This is the internet age, for God’s sake. You want to search for meaning? Just Google “search for meaning”. If he had done that and clicked the very first result, he would have learned about a little book called Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl. It’s a book about Frankl’s search for meaning over the five years he spent in Auschwitz. But 5 years is 1825 days, and I guess Mark already had the other domain name, so…
Besides, Man’s Search for Meaning is like 200 pages. Contemplating death is one thing, but that’s like, hard and stuff. Mark would rather go to a restaurant, take a photo of his dinner, and blog it. This is the new spirituality we’re talking about here. Theology for the Powerpoint generation. Glib answers, fast and easy. No confessionals, no ancient Hebrew, Greek or Latin. No studying, no reading. No theological contradictions to struggle with, no confounding intersections with philosophy, art or psychoanalysis. Just soft non-answers designed to make the answerer feel like he helped more than they actually help the bereaved.
Put down the book by the black-and-white German philosopher, okay? Let’s listen to some Creed, turn our baseball caps backwards, groom our clever facial hair, and rap with the kids about God’s plan for our sex lives and complement each other on our tribal tats.
Mark Rife’s narcissist manifesto reveals he put no effort into his search for meaning partly because he was not intellectually capable of recognizing meaning when he found it, but mostly because he didn’t want to find a reason not to kill himself. What he wanted to do was mythologize himself. He wanted to create this story about how he gave life a chance, so he could end it with a self-inflicted death in order to communicate to us just how deeply sad he was. It’s important for Mark to know that his friends understand how sad he is. So he’ll murder himself to make them feel it. I realize that sounds crazy, but I’m not the one who watched Seven Pounds here.
The lesson in all this tragedy is that pop culture makes for a sorry port in the storm. Pop culture is very much an escape from the petty inconveniences that occupy our days, and works as a means for getting us through them. That dreck that you think is so important you made it your yearbook quote is only meaningful for inconsequential situations. Eat Pray Love is the fantasy you entertain after a hard day’s work listening to your boss yell at you. Romeo and Juliet is romantic if you are a teenager, and by definition know nothing about real love and relationships.
And that’s another thing. What precipitated all of this is not Romeo and Juliet the play. It was the movie Romeo + Juliet starring Leonardo di Caprio and handguns. This is the level of intellectual engagement he started with. A movie that did to Shakespeare what Frank Miller’s 300 did to ancient Greece.
The moment anything extremely real happens, none of that specular crap has anything of value to say, because none of it has any real meaning or substance. Eat Pray Love isn’t any more meaningful a story than Transformers 3. Their intellectual and spiritual payload is identical. They are both fantasies, each providing a demographically customized escape from the tedium of modern life. But they aren’t escapes from the big problems. BECAUSE THERE IS NO ESCAPE.
And that is the point. We are all going to die. Most of us don’t have the luxury of knowing when. But Mark Rife did. He picked a date. Started a clock. He had financial resources and the time to end his story however he wanted. He didn’t have to work, meet obligations or anyone’s expectations. He could have set himself to the purpose of giving his life meaning, rather than searching for it. Instead he made a website namechecking all of Hollywood’s idealized searches for meaning in order to get the point across that he was on one too. He packaged all those meaningless anecdotes into a monument to narcissism that Mark Zuckerberg can only envy.
But he wasn’t on any quest, journey, or search. He didn’t want to put the effort into it. He didn’t want to do the hard work. He didn’t want to construct for himself a meaningful life, and instead constructed a monument to its meaninglessness. Did he care about the effect his death would have on the people he loved. Not as much as he cared about finishing his monument. There is a legend that people die three deaths: the first death is when your body ceases to function. The second death is when you are buried and exists nowhere but in the minds and memories of others. And the third death is when the last person who remembers you dies. I wonder if Mark considered that in killing himself, he was in a way killing his wife again by obliterating so many memories of her.
If the world was going to end in one thousand days, would you spend that time being a good little pop culture consumer? Of course not. But Mark did, and that’s how we know he is irrational, crazy, delusional, and depressed. That’s why, like all suicides, we can ignore his explicitly stated rationale for the project (his rationale for being completely irrational), and see this for what it is: narcissism masquerading as pseudo-intellectualism, and pseudo-spiritualism; a monument to a postmodern man who constructed his superficial identity out of the cheapest and most unreliable materials, and is somehow proud of it.